Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 2

The impartially partisan political journalist

Part 1 of ‘Truth with partisan on the side’ ended with the suggestion that we might be in a muddle in political journalism in Australia, a muddle about ‘partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or “neutral” journalism’. If this is so, what kind of a muddle is it?

It may be a muddle about what we the people — the readers, the listeners, the ‘reliers’ on information we can’t easily track ourselves — want and need from political journalism. It may be a moral muddle about what political journalists themselves see as their role in providing what they think we (the people, the reader etc.) might need and be looking for.

It is certainly, for me, the muddle inherent in, and driven by, a long-taught practice in journalism — that the journalist should be a non-partisan presenter of facts.

In The Year My Politics Broke Jonathan Green argued that the public ‘make a pervading assumption of impartiality’ and that political journalists fail this test via ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘abrogation’ or ‘partisan journalistic activism’. One might guess, and only guess, that Green’s faith in the impartiality mantra has been strong all of his professional life.

In May 2013, well before publishing The Year My Politics Broke, Green had written ‘Journalism tainted by conviction is not journalism’. It is a short piece wholly dedicated to the impartiality theme and disdainful of anything that does not measure up to journalism ‘untainted’. And it is salutary to compare some of the words, phrases and examples Green uses to flesh out what untainted and ‘conviction’-tainted journalism are for him:

Journalism untainted Journalism tainted
… a craft, a set of trade skills that can be applied pretty universally to a range of situations a polemic…a cynical exercise in the promotion of any or various propositions
…true calling at the heart of the craft: to simply inform without bias or favour. the sort of polemic that may have limited commercial worth but enormous political purpose
… a cornerstone of smart democratic practice … cynically political purpose while claiming all the protections, rights and respectability of the fourth estate
… created with intellectual curiosity to inform Fox News … an entirely parallel universe that determines its own agenda, facts and logic according to an often bellicose political mission
… practiced with calm objectivity and simple curiosity The Australian, a paper whose political purpose and occasional flights of “truthiness” can routinely obscure its better journalistic angels
… neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. … the opinion formers of the tabloid blogosphere. Little s-bends of ill-humour like the Daily Telegraph's Tim Blair, or great vaulted Taj Mahals of polished ego like the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.
In any … worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance … produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it
Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right. What is certain is that it should not matter. the paranoid, fact defying columns of the proselytising right … where … any measured objective assessment of reality is dismissed as being 'of the left', the facts are mutable servants of argument
Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence

The ‘heartfeltness’ of Green’s sentiments can’t be denied. And not many of us reading here would contradict, I suspect, his take on the The Australian, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt.

But what niggles about the piece was captured, for me, in Paula (@dragonista) Matthewson’s response in The Myth of Objectivity, which introduced some needed subtlety:

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy ...

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand [my emphasis].

Far less subtle than Matthewson’s, of course, was a February 2014 Gerard Henderson response to, well, not just Green and his The Year My Politics Broke but Green, as an exemplar extraordinaire of ‘our ABC’, otherwise known as that appalling collective of left-y, partisan-y groupthink-y bias. Subbed with the give-away title ‘It's easy being Green when you can sneer while on the public purse’ Henderson gives himself licence to sneer away at Green:

Green seriously divides Australians between an “informed public” (that is, people like him) and “a great mass of people” who are “wilfully misinformed” (that is, people not at all like him). Green wants “gatekeepers” like himself to shape “informed decision making” in a green/left kind of way.

Whenever commenting on journalism as practice Green clearly argues for impartiality and objectivity, considers himself impartial and, further, that his personal political stances are, and should be, private. Consequently, he believes they just don’t show.

Matthewson argues from the opposite position and for the inevitable subtle evidence in everything a journalist writes, of belief, conviction even, by virtue of the individual journalist having almost sole power to choose the content of any story and shape its telling so absolutely. In the light of this, look again at Green; at, say, his policy-change suggestions to the Labor Opposition in ‘Where is the alternative to Manus Island cruelty?

And Henderson would never consider anything Green says or writes as impartial, but not for any of the reasons Green puts forward against ‘tainted’ journalism. In the ‘conviction’ piece, Green is trying out a philosophy, if you like, of impartiality. Matthewson teases out some complexity. Henderson just plays the man (or lots of them in this piece) to snipe at the ABC in News Corp’s ever more savage way for its failure to provide ‘balance’ or ‘equal time’ to so-called left and right.

No-one, of course, can rip the balance myth (as antidote to the dreaded evil of bias) a better one than David Horton did in, for example, his open letter to ABC CEO Mark Scott:

I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

Or here again in ‘Steering the ABC Titanic’:

I am suggesting that the obvious sources of bias be removed. That experts once again replace ideologues, that news bulletins contain, well, simply news.

For Horton, the ABC’s over-striving after ‘false’ balance (or false equivalence) to placate its critics from conservative camps leads to presenting non-fact as if it had the same weight as fact; and for Horton, this way the mad obsession with avoiding bias truly lies. For Green, pure bias is the personally prejudiced, politically purposed, paralysingly paranoid, polemical propaganda journalism of a Bolt or a Blair (amongst others). For Henderson, bias is Green’s wicked adherence to, for example, those ‘catastrophic’ issues loved by lefty greenie progressives such as anthropogenic causes for a changing climate.

But the Henderson view on bias and the never-ending drama about the ABC’s journalistic ‘balance’ are little more than ‘look over there’ or ‘ooh, shiny thing’ tactics from the naysayers and the no see-ers whom both Green and Horton so rightfully excoriate. Such views offer no help to moving us from adversarial charges that conviction is partisan in a ‘bad’ way, is bias, is propaganda, to something else — perhaps something like recognising that owning and stating your position may be offering some first steps in reviving trust in the integrity of political journalism?

In a recent piece, ‘Facts are futile in an era of post-truth politics’, Gay Alcorn lamented:

… we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter. But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual.

Andrew Elder responded:

When someone like Gay Alcorn writes something like this, I accept that she has a genuine and general concern for the state of the polity in this country. Pretty much everything Jonathan Green writes is in a similar vein, and there are others, but …When you reach such a state of despair, the question you have to ask is: what can you do? To answer that question in the negative is to invite further despair. [my emphasis]

Despair as media cop-out, really. Elder goes on to suggest that the media, more than the politicians and the political system, needs faith in evidence and correctives in the way it reports politics, or journalists like Alcorn are already out of a job. He adds: ‘If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it.’

Speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 Jay Rosen drew on, as a springboard for some of his ideas on how to change or rescue ‘political coverage’, a 2008 essay, ‘The power of the pen: A call for journalistic courage’, by Walter Pinkus that set out the Pinkus approach to how to ‘fix’ political coverage. Pinkus, from fifty years of practice in the business, had reminded his profession of their origins in presses begun by families who took partisan positions in their politics, but played the game with integrity nevertheless:

… they all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. Pamphleteers, newspaper editors and writers of all kinds could have their say, and citizens were to weigh all opinions and facts as presented and make up their own minds. [my emphasis]

Pinkus argued that the political media participated in the political process: that the actions and decisions of the media directly affected government, making the media powerful, and thus allowing it to play ‘activist’ roles in governance. A recent development is the media’s rejection of this activist role — which he views as a ‘threat to our democracy’.

For Pinkus, courage in the political media field is ‘a journalist [who] stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities’. It isn’t eliding, omitting or denying evidence or fact. But it isn’t playing at being ‘neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate’. For Pinkus, the ‘neutral’ journalist is an unfortunate evolution away from the origins of the profession (at least in the USA) into becoming PR mouthpieces for governments.

When first picking up the Pinkus essay in 2008, Jay Rosen argued that neutrality (another word for balance) needed to be ‘uncoupled’ from fairness, which should remain a tenet of modern journalism. But more importantly, the political press needed to let its readers know what it was doing with its own power. Nothing quite as simple as letting us know who they vote for, but what evidence they could provide for claiming their position of authority in the first place.

In 2011 in Melbourne, Rosen offered his audience several aspects of political coverage that ‘impoverished it’: what he described as ‘politics as an inside game’, ‘the cult of savviness’ and ‘the production of innocence’. He then suggested a possible model for change based on political coverage reflecting what is real, and letting the public know what is not, after all, real or true. In Rosen’s model a political journalist should assess the information they garner in four ways and ask themselves whether they are seeing:

  • appearances rendered as fact; e.g. the media stunt
  • phony arguments; e.g. manufactured controversies; sideshows
  • today’s new realities: get the facts; e.g. the actual news of politics
  • real arguments; e.g. debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.
For Rosen, this is what citizens need from the political media.

Andrew Elder’s response to Gay Alcorn’s piece raised the issue of how difficult it might be, when you are on the inside of a profession or institution, to see what is happening and to make change from the inside. Ideally, you are best placed to do so. But it’s also possible to be so long or so far in that it’s hard to see how, when, where, why and what change might be needed.

Jonathan Green argued, in The Year My Politics Broke, for a game changer in Australian politics a, change agency person, preferably a different kind of Prime Minister or leader.

I’d argue, perhaps with Elder, that we need Australian game changers in political journalism far more, right now, than we might need a different kind of political leader or politician generally.

There are those, quite a few, who suggest that the rise of the fifth estate is such a change agent. And I would argue that while exciting in its possibilities, it simply isn’t true. Not yet. Not when online only starts-up like The Global Mail fold so quickly. Not while the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun or the Australian or The Age are the probable reading fare of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who don’t yet read the political media online and don’t know how to find it. Neither New Matilda nor The Conversation nor yet Guardian Australia (though it’s growing fast) has yet the extent of readership to influence the voting mind as rapidly as News Corp’s paper-based rags have.

The fourth estate still matters more, because of its power, because of its reach and because of its capacity to influence our governance for the worse or for the better, which is probably why some of us get as angry with it as we do. It’s way past time for the fourth estate to throw up journalists as change agents working from the inside.

One might look just like Jonathan Green … if he’d only seize his impartial partisanship (he doesn’t put a fact wrong) laud it, and teach that, instead of its opposite. (To be wholly in love with Jonathan Green would be quite something.)

One might look like Paul Syvret, working out of the News Corp stable in Brisbane, who produced this astonishingly open piece stating what his own personal positions on many issues were, but equally arguing no reader should simply box him into ‘left’ or ‘right’. Syvret has become one of my other most trusted journalists. It may be that his every article reads like the perfect practice of the Rosen model. I know where he stands. And I trust his evidence.

And one indeed might look like Margot Kingston, who practises now in the fifth estate after a long time in the fourth, and who very recently described herself, when challenged on whether she was ‘really a journalist’, in these words:

I think I've always been an activist journalist. As far as whether this has crossed a line, I've certainly never done any form of embedded journalism before,"

"My policy has been, for a long time, to be very open about who I am and what my beliefs are, and I hope that people trust me because of my honesty and transparency. All I want, as a journalist, is for what I say is the truth or report as fact, is believed. I think I have got that, I think my work is trusted journalistically, but yes, this is a very extreme way to report a protest." [my emphasis]

I want real change in my political coverage in Australia.

What do you want?

I see journalists who seem to actively pursue what we might call ‘a partisan impartiality’ in their practice in Australia.

Do you, and if so who?

I think I see some glimmering causes for optimism.

What do you think?

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 1

Quite in love with Jonathan Green

I love Jonathan Green. Indeed, I’ve been quite in love with Jonathan Green for yonks. And that, in media-land, is called ‘disclosure’ (or ‘the big reveal’? Whatever.)

Disclosure is important because this piece is partisan. Whether proudly clutching its first person (it began with ‘I’) or not, this piece like any other can be nought but partisan. Partisan is precisely how we roll and what we are — all of us. (But let’s hope what happens next is also truthful and attentive to the facts.)

So why have I ere-long loved the Green?

Is it the kindly rounded face guesting every now and again on ABCNews24’s The Drum, murmuring wisdoms, occasionally pained, but often beaming genial benevolence?

(*Green starts at 2.30 mins.)

Is it the gentle calm about the ABC radio voice — that it almost never rises, even when the topic is confronting and the participants adversarial; that it holds steady through repeated challenge; that it slips in questions so deferentially as to seem innocuous? (But they’re not, of course.)

It is that the Green’s froggy tweets [@GreenJ] are quite sublime — a mastering of the ‘mot’ so ‘bon’ they out-‘wit’ all others?

Or that his weekly Thursday columns on The Drum website challenge us not only to look but really to learn from what we see?

Whichever way he captivates, this voice has been, for me, a trusted one in media. Not surprising, then, that I leapt to acquire The Year My Politics Broke by Green, a work in fine journalistic tradition of analysis on the 2013 Federal election, the moment it was digitised and out.

But — there is indeed a ‘but’ — while I didn’t quite know it then, I was a reader on a mission. After all, The Year My Politics Broke is written by an insider having voice across four communication platforms (add the book and we make five). Would this powerful, trusted voice shed new, or any, light on the role the fourth estate had played in letting loose the brutal wrenching dogs of pseudo-democracy we’ve just inherited — apparently by vote? If anyone knew the go on media culpability, Green surely would.

I have wondered ever since our last federal election whether journalists in Australia really truly, saw, never mind understood, the anger that hundreds of thousands of Australians felt so directly for so many of them before and after it. Aussie journalists sold Australian voters down the drain, cried some. Aussie journalism hadn’t done its job, said others. Tagged repeatedly by new online media and the fifth estate, even just in this last twelve months, who in the fourth has been listening?

So furious have been some judgments of betrayal, of an abdication of responsibility so heinous, that a chosen consequence could only be arraigning some of them — this very fourth estate — for treason. Those hungry for some kind of just consequence for media inadequacy are not ‘rusted-on’ (the usual disparaging epithet) party-aligned loonies; these are rusted-on human beings (I like to think I’m one) who feel betrayed utterly by press as much as politicians.

And I’ve wondered since; how aware now is the fourth estate that extreme citizen unrest persists, that the language of anger (and yes, I do use Twitter as something of a barometer, but not the only one) is, however extreme the analogy, increasingly aligning what is happening in the Australian political environment with the 1930s rise of fascism (not to mention the part some media played), and resistance — any impetus for action — with notions of real revolution?

Might Green have seen this as he reflected on the ‘breaking’ of his, indeed he argues Australia’s, own politics? Does he see it now? (Surely, I ask myself, after the ‘March in March’ event of 15–17 March the fourth estate might see a little more … now? Or not, as Mr Denmore considers.)

Green’s first chapter (available here in full), though, is one of the most incisive and intelligent dissections of where the last three years or more of politician and press shenanigans have left all things to do with the polity that I have thus far seen. (You really should read it.)

His very first sentence holds a palpable sense of his own disappointment in what modern Australian politics has become: ‘At some point they refined the art of politics, whittling it down to a nub of cynical ambition couched in something that from the middle distance might pass for belief’.

On the ‘sum of modern politics’ he further notes that there is good and bad policy, the good often squandered through a focus on its ‘inter-party or intra-party effect’ because of ‘fear of adverse reaction’, and the bad sculpted from fear to create division that is politically useful. It is, he surmises, a system reacting to circumstance rather than being ‘driven by belief’.

There’s no doubt at all that Green’s personal ‘J’accuse’ includes the press:

And how did we come to this? It’s hard not to overstate the role that the media have played—another institution, like formal politics, looking increasingly uncertain in a world of changing verities and technological circumstances. They have both gone down together in public estimation, our politicians and our press, two estates fundamental to our democratic health, but engaged in a mutually self-destructive relationship.

Quite soon (Chapter 2), ‘the press’ are called (or are they?) on their coverage of the Rudd revival. Green suggests the public interest was little served by coverage of what ‘seemed like little more than self-serving figments … shreds of deliberately laid, wishful myth’ of which he says: ‘And we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this, never challenge the source of all the rumour and ambitious innuendo’ [my emphasis].

Journalistic motives in the Rudd saga are, however, explored In Chapter 2. Significantly, the framework of impartiality in journalism is brought into play. Suggesting that some senior correspondents thought a Rudd comeback likely or, for some reason, desirable, he notes: ‘Again, an impossible proposition to prove or detect, thanks to the notion of confidentiality and the pervading assumption of journalistic impartiality’ [my emphasis].

By Green’s third chapter, the kind of bollocking Andrew Elder has been serving out for years to the press in general and the Canberra Gallery in particular is underway:

Is this a wilful blindness? If Australia’s political discussion is lost into a pit of rudeness and tripe, it has been dumped there by press as much as by politicians … could politicians behave in that manner if the media forced the issue and used its collective intelligence and informational bargaining power? …

The media could play a role in the cure too, of course, but turn a famously tin ear to these discussions … Just fine if the work of these men and women had no broader public impact, if the system was a closed cell whose failures and transgressions could be safely ignored. But the public trust invested in a free press demands a better return than the flabby self-indulgence of so much of the political reporting-as-usual …

If media are to enjoy the privileges they earn as our democracy’s fourth estate, then they need to reawaken a sense of what serving that estate might entail. A shorthand for the position might be policy over personality, but perhaps that’s too tempting an oversimplification.

It hardly seems to matter, in any event, because nothing seems more resolute than the collective failure of Canberra press to just get this simple point. Our gallery hacks are rarely called on it, even though the consensus growing among the increasingly audible community they putatively serve seems to be that our press is not to be trusted or relied upon.

And the one group dealt out of the exchange were the voters, the viewers, the ordinary Australians, the real losers in this cartel collusion between politics and press that substitutes reality for self-serving political fictions [my emphasis].

But it’s not until Chapter 7 that Green next tackles the political press. Writing of press coverage of the ‘pink batts’ affair Green notes: ‘The betrayal of the reader/voter implied in this is obvious, and it suggests either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media. Or worse than either, it implies partisan journalistic activism’ [my emphasis].

The press really don’t appear again. Instead, towards the end of his treatise (Chapter 11) Green hands us this:

It’s a cycle that needs a circuit breaker before the entire apparatus consumes itself tail first.

And that circuit breaker may just be the popularity of a politician who sees all this, plays to it as well as anyone, but somehow manages to send a simultaneous signal that things need to change, that none of this serves us well. A charismatic celebrity candidate who nonetheless embraces a suite of big ideas, ideas made more palatable by fame, ideas that also mirror the public distaste for the stale systems of media and politics as they stand. It might have been Turnbull. It could have been Rudd. It’s not a description that seems to fit Abbott. We may be surprised or we may have some waiting to do.

It is true in so many ways that The Year My Politics Broke doesn’t disappoint. But it is also true that many more words are spent on the failure of politicians and politics than on how we mediate through the political press our trust in both. Green’s thought of the possibility of a leader who could turn it all around is virtually his only suggestion for how change might occur. A popular charismatic leader is his answer? And, yes, while it isn’t fair to ask someone to write the book you wanted rather than the one you got, I am bemused by a respected elder of the journalistic profession who wrote so vehemently against ‘the cartel collusion’ of politics and press seeming then to offer little more than an ‘oh woe’ and a wish for a new messiah.

I am more confused than bemused at how Green seems initially to position himself: ‘we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this’ or ‘our gallery hacks are rarely called on this’. Well he isn’t ‘the public’, of course. By all first principles of the estates, and by virtue of the layers of media expression he has access to, he’s in a far more powerful position than, say, I am for calling anyone in public life on anything. And the public, by virtue of social media apart from any other way, consistently did call the press ‘on this’. And so indeed did he in November 2012 in ‘Partisan hyperbole: mistaking a claque for a clap’ where he notes ‘a puffed up, perpetually outraged and campaigning media can be a political trap …’, and continued to do in February 2014 in ‘Slogans stifle debate – and we let them’ where he raises the question of what might have happened in the last federal election ‘ … if our media had pushed harder for more considered responses and insisted that the electoral argument go beyond cliché and slogan …’

It seems, then, that Green chooses to comment on the habits of political journalism as if he were not a member of the media. If you are not, perhaps you don’t have to act (other than to comment) for change?

There may be a clue to the apparent contradiction in how strongly Green states, as a cause for the failures of the political press, that the public assume the ‘impartiality’ of journalists when what they often get is ‘either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media … [or] worse than either … partisan journalistic activism’.

Worse, no less: partisan journalistic activism.

Green is looking for new and different political leaders to bring change to politics, and presumably (by osmosis?) to that colluding political press.

Part of a love that is still ‘quite’ is that I’m equally looking for leaders in journalism to bring change to the political media. Jonathan, for all that I esteem his work, does not yet seem to be putting up his hand.

For some time US journalist, professor and critic Jay Rosen has been critiquing political journalism. In 2011 at the Melbourne Writers festival he set the cat amongst the journalistic pigeons by giving an address titled ‘Why political coverage is broken’. In it he defined something he calls ‘the production of innocence’ in journalism:

By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or her innocence.

One reason why a journalist as fine as Jonathan Green leads us to the nub of the problem but seems unable to lead us on to solutions is, I’d suggest, that we are in a very moral muddle about partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or ‘neutral’ journalism.

In ‘Truth, with partisan on the side: Part 2’ I want to explore this suggestion further.

But for now:

  • Is political journalism in Australia broken?
  • Should we be looking for leaders in political journalism who might make a new compact with both the public and their own estate?
  • What might leaders and compact be like, if we did?
What do you think?

Bringing Gross National Happiness into play

In my series of articles about where the Left should be heading in our new world, I suggested that adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of economic progress should be one element of a new approach for the Left. In this piece I will examine why that is important, what it means, and how Labor can also move towards adopting the concept of GNH while still seeking government.

The basic idea is that GNH, in one form or another, would replace, or at the very least supplement, the current measure of economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The use of GDP to measure economic activity only arose during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the American government was concerned that they did not see the depression coming. The government asked economic experts for a model that would allow it to keep track of the economy and so have a chance of foreseeing such events in the future. GDP only came into widespread use, however, after 1944, with the Bretton Woods agreement and the establishment of the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

GDP measures a nation’s economic activity either by summing the outputs of every category of enterprise to reach a total market value of products and services, or by summing the expenditure in acquiring those goods and services, or the income of the producers in selling them: each approach should come to the same final number.

There is also another measure termed Gross National Product (GNP). It differs from GDP only in terms of measuring the value of all products and services produced by a nation, whether within its own borders or overseas by its citizens:

For example, if a Japanese company such as Honda has an auto-manufacturing plant in the United States then the output of that plant becomes part of the U.S. GDP but not its GNP because Honda is not a U.S.-owned company. The output of the plant instead becomes a part of Japan’s GNP.

It would be interesting to see how Australia measured up on GNP given the prevalence of overseas ownership of our businesses.

The use of GDP, however, began being questioned as early as the late 1950s. Even its creator, Simon Kuznets, said that ‘the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income’.

A major problem with GDP is that it measures only productive activity and takes no account of the losses or costs associated with the activity:

… it tends to go up after a natural disaster. Reconstruction and remediation spur intense activity that is registered by GDP, while the destruction, lives lost, suffering and disruption to families and communities in the wake of a flood, cyclone or bushfire are ignored.

Or as Robert Kennedy said in 1968:

… the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. [added emphasis]

And while GDP aggregates national income, it does nothing to indicate how that income is distributed. That is why the Gini coefficient is sometimes used, as it provides a statistical measure of distribution: under the Gini coefficient it is theoretically possible for a rich and a poor country to have the same coefficient, simply meaning that the low national income of the poor country is distributed among families and households in the same proportions as the higher income of the rich country.

The small nation of Bhutan, rather than relying on GDP to follow its progress, decided in 1972 to adopt a measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Although the term “Gross National Happiness” was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan the concept has a much longer resonance in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

(Perhaps we should apply that last statement to our governments!)

GNH has nine ‘domains’: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

There are also 33 indicators and 124 variables for measuring results. There are roles for government, communities and individuals in achieving ‘happiness’. ‘Happiness’ is defined by having a ‘sufficiency’ in the domains. In Bhutan, the government’s main role is in decreasing the ‘insufficiencies’ of ‘unhappy’ people. While in one sense the GNH is specific to Bhutan (it includes a number of local cultural indicators), its purpose of measuring well-being applies where GDP fails. GNH has been discussed in UN forums and has influenced economists in the developed world.

A number of alternatives to GDP have been developed over the years such as the Fordham Index of Social Health (FISH), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and more recently the Social Progress Index (SPI).

The UN has the Human Development Index (HDI) which basically looks at life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and literacy, and gross national income per capita — developed countries, like Australia, tend to score highly on this as it is primarily aimed at developing nations. The SPI is similar but adds extra dimensions and allows disaggregation of results, so that while Australia still rates highly overall on the SPI it rates more lowly (as many rich countries do) on the sub-set of ecosystem sustainability: and while Sweden tops the SPI it ranks more lowly on ‘shelter’ owing to weaknesses in affordable housing.

In 2012, the UN introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) which includes not only economic capital, but human capital and environmental capital, and provided a report on 20 countries, examining their growth between 1990 and 2008: an example of four nations comparing GDP and IWI growth is shown in the following table:

Nation GDP growth 1990-2008 IWI growth 1990-2008
China 422% 45%
USA 37% 13%
Brazil 31% 18%
South Africa 24% -1%

The lower IWI growth in each country was due primarily to the depletion of natural resources in achieving GDP growth. An interesting contrast is Germany, which achieved 30% GDP growth but 38% growth using the IWI owing to significant investment in human capital (education).

In the same period Australia achieved average annual growth of 2.2% in GDP but only 0.1% in IWI.

Similarly other measures, like the FISH and GPI show that in the USA, the UK and Australia, GDP has grown significantly since the 1970s (up to threefold in the USA) but the FISH and GPI indexes have barely moved.

When the results of these alternative measures are considered, it clearly suggests that rising GDP has not improved social well-being, and that economies are not growing as strongly as suggested if the costs of achieving GDP are factored in. If the Gini coefficient is added into the equation, it also shows increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in many nations, both developing and developed, since the 1970s. If those aren’t good reasons for adopting something other than GDP as a measure of progress, I don’t know what is!

These various approaches do, however, indicate that there is a serious attempt being made to move away from the exclusive use of GDP as a measure of economic progress. It is perhaps an acknowledgment that GDP measures economic activity, not progress.

In recent years the GPI was the front runner to replace GDP. It has been adopted by the US states of Maryland and Vermont and a number of other states, Utah, Minnesota and Oregon, are considering it, and Canada has adopted aspects of it.

It is probably the most popular because, like GDP, it is still measuring economic growth based on monetary values but, instead of just summing all production, it includes the dollar value cost of some activities and tries to give a value to other activities not currently valued in the market, for example:

  • the poor benefit more than the rich from a rise in income, so the GPI rises when their share of national wealth increases
  • the value of housework and volunteering are added, calculated at the rate of hiring someone to undertake the same tasks
  • the costs arising from crime are deducted
  • costs of pollution, degradation of wetlands, forests, farmland, etc are costs to be deducted from economic growth, as are estimates of longer term environmental damage
  • the GPI also goes up if leisure time increases
  • for consumer durables GPI treats the capital expenditure as a cost to the economy and the value is added for each year of service they provide.
It is more difficult to calculate than GDP, which may weigh against its widespread use and with the UN’s Inclusive Wealth Index now in play, the latter may become more favoured over the next few years (especially if it adds a measurement of social capital which it is aiming to do).

While the GPI and similar approaches may keep economists happy and provide governments with a more realistic measure of economic growth, it may not necessarily make the people happier.

Even the OECD has recognised that measuring well-being goes beyond purely monetary indicators. Subjective measures such as ‘life satisfaction’ are now included in survey questions on well-being and the OECD acknowledges evidence that this subjective measure actually shows up in objective measures: people showing a higher level of life satisfaction are likely to be more productive, more collaborative in the workplace, generally have better long-term health, can better pursue long-term goals and so on.

A problem with the current approach is that it is leading towards having a number of different measures operating together— some suggest that GDP remains important to monitor the economic cycle. So we could end up with GDP reflecting movements in economic activity, something like GPI or IWI taking a wider view of the costs of achieving GDP, and something that measures social well-being. Such a combination, while valuable, would leave policy makers with the discretion as to which they choose to drive policy. Public debate needs to drive policy and that really requires a single approach that can be readily understood, not having to combine the different evidence from three or more measures.

To my mind the GNH already blends much of what these other measures are trying to achieve.

In its surveys, it asks questions on life satisfaction and self-reported health status but also about the number of healthy days a person experienced in the past month; it asks about time use, working hours and sleeping hours (as sufficient sleep is seen as necessary for health and productivity); it asks about political participation; about social support, community relationships, and victims of crime; about pollution and wildlife and an individual’s environmental responsibility. In approaching education, it looks at literacy and educational qualifications but also at knowledge and values (based on the dominant Buddhist precepts in Bhutan). Three of its five knowledge questions are about local cultural issues, but it also asks about the Constitution and HIV/AIDS (a significant issue in Bhutan). The 2010 report concluded that despite rising literacy, people’s ‘knowledge’ of their locality was poor. I think that wider focus on local knowledge and values is an interesting inclusion that could have application in Western countries, as it attempts to quantify knowledge obtained outside the formal education system.

Yes, the GNH would need to be adapted to a modern western economy but the basics are there. For measurement purposes it would be possible to use the statistical approaches developed for some of the other indexes mentioned previously. In Australia, the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) already conducts Social Trends surveys and that data can also be used.

So this is not an impossible task. People may baulk at the idea of a ‘happiness’ index but it can be renamed – perhaps a National Well-being Index or a National Progress Indicator.

Labor, in seeking government, would no doubt be reluctant to take the concept of GNH to an election. They would be open to criticism by the LNP that they were ignoring ‘economic fundamentals’ — the LNP already rates higher with the electorate in terms of ‘managing the economy’. That is one reason I suggested in my three part article on the Left that Labor needs to work at changing the tenor of the economic debate.

Being realistic, I would see Labor adopting the multiple-measure approach, at least initially: so there would be GDP, GPI or IWI, and a well-being measure akin to GNH. But what needs to be done is make GDP a background measure, and begin emphasising the real value of our economy (GPI or IWI) and the social benefits (improved well-being and equity). Labor should seek to emphasise that the order of importance of these measures is GPI/IWI first, well-being second and GDP third, and focus on GPI/IWI, not GDP, in public debate. The long term strategy should be that GDP drops from public view as the main measurement of economic progress and that, over time, well-being assumes first place in the public hierarchy of progress measurements. The other measurements, and eventually only the GPI/IWI, then become the economic background against which the government decides which policies are tenable to improve social well-being (happiness).

That will take time and will not be easy. The vested interests of big business and global corporations will mostly oppose it. They like GDP because it measures what they are producing, taking no account of environmental or social costs. While GDP reigns, so does big business because it can argue that for every downturn or slowing in GDP growth it needs government policies that will help it boost production and so increase GDP again. I will concede that at the WEF at Davos in January this year, the global corporations represented there did show some concern for environmental and resource costs because they are realising that continued unfettered use of natural resources and damage to the environment will eventually affect their ‘bottom line’. Unfortunately there appears no sign of this realisation in Australia and that is unlikely to change while GDP rules the economic debate here and while political parties also pay homage to it.

What do you think?

Number 982

Michael Gawenda was the editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne from 1997 until 2004. He is currently a Fellow of University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, after serving as the inaugural Director of the Centre in 2009. After finishing school, he studied economics and politics, then he moved to Papua New Guinea to work as an economist. He returned to Australia in 1970 after deciding that economics wasn’t the career path for him.

An internship at The Age in 1970 led to a 37 year career in which Michael rose to become the Editor in Chief in 2003. Along the way, he was awarded three Walkley Awards and was a feature writer, news writer and foreign correspondent. The Age endorsed the Liberal Party in the 2004 federal election while Gawenda was Editor in Chief — something that was condemned by Crikey at the time. Ironically by 2009, Gawenda was writing the Rocky and Gawenda blog for Crikey.

All in all, Michael Gawenda is respected in his profession and has made an outstanding contribution to Australian life. Gawenda is also a refugee. Gawenda’s family are of Polish descent and Michael Gawenda was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria in 1947. His family arrived in Australia three years later and lived with his father’s cousin. You can read his personal account of early life in Australia here on the Refugee Council’s website.

Most Australians have heard of the ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The scheme was a result of the Curtin Government’s ‘populate or perish’ policy, designed to protect Australia from invasion by Japan. Briefly, adults from any Commonwealth country could gain passage to Australia for the sum of ten pounds — accompanying children were free. While the policy was changed over the years to increase the level of skill required, as well as to allow entry for immigrants from other European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy, the policy of increasing the population of this country for economic and security benefits continued, supported by both ALP and Coalition governments.

The scheme’s peak year was 1969 when more than 80,000 people immigrated to Australia using assisted passage arrangements and, while it is estimated that approximately one quarter of those that immigrated returned to their country of origin, ‘Ten Pound Poms’ have made a significant contribution to Australian life. Some of the better known assisted immigrants include Tony Abbott (current prime minister), Julia Gillard (past prime minister), The Bee Gees (musicians and song writers), Noni Hazlehurst (actor), Alan Bond (businessman), Frank Tyson (English test cricketer) and Harold Larwood (English test cricketer of ‘bodyline’ fame). In addition, actor/musician Kylie Minogue’s mother, and the parents of both Whitlam government minister Al Grassby and actor Hugh Jackman, were also assisted immigrants.

Tony Le Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1968. Le Nguyen has worked as an actor, writer, director and producer — as well as being the first official Vietnamese Australian to be appointed as a Prison Visitor in Victoria. He had a role in Romper Stomper as well as a number of other Australian productions as varied as GP, Fast Forward, Stingers and Sea Change. Le Nguyen founded the Australian Vietnamese Youth Media in 1994 and has directed a number of community and professional productions since then.

Le Nguyen’s father was a teacher and interpreter working for the South Vietnamese government. The family made two attempts to escape from Vietnam using unsuitable boats and spent some in refugee camps in south-east Asia. In 1979, his family was accepted for resettlement in Australia. You can read his personal account of the struggle to live in Vietnam, leave Vietnam, and life in Australia on the Refugee Council’s website.

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is a hip and knee orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney. You may have seen some media coverage recently when he used a pioneering technique to ‘install’ artificial limbs. The Australian Women’s Weekly told the story of Mitch Grant in the November 2013 issue and the News Limited Sunday papers recently carried an article regarding his work with Michael Swain, a British veteran of the Afghanistan War. In both cases Dr Al Muderis affixed posts to the remaining stumps of legs and connected the artificial limb to the post. This ensured that artificial limbs would not be subject to the customary problems where the artificial limb rubs or doesn’t make contact with the remaining natural limb. In Michael Swain’s case, he arrived in Sydney in a wheelchair but walked down the aerobridge when it was time to return to London.

As you have probably deduced by now, Munjed Al Muderis is also a refugee — in this case from Iraq, where he was ordered as a junior surgeon to cut the ears off people accused of crimes against the Hussein government. His website has a biography and gives some detail of his experiences in becoming a world-renowned surgeon. His story is also told in the article that discusses Michael Swain — who is due to receive an MBE from the Queen in April 2014 and ‘walk down the aisle’ in June.

Dr Al Muderis is the ‘Number 982’ that heads this piece — that was his number at the Curtin ‘Detention’ Centre and all that he was called by the authorities when incarcerated there for ten months.

Humans have basic needs for shelter, food, security, protection and stability. Maslow’s Theory suggests that once basic needs such as food and shelter are met, humans will seek security, protection and stability. It is questionable that a human’s food and shelter needs are met if they are living under a government that is punishing families, as demonstrated by the narratives of Michael Gawenda, Tony Le Nguyen or Munjed Al Muderis. Those responsible for the decision to become refugees demonstrated their basic desire for food, shelter, protection and stability — as did a majority of those who emigrated to Australia in the past 40,000 years. To suggest that asylum seekers or refugees is solely an Australian problem is ludicrous. The UNHCR reports that Australia received 15,998 refugees in 2012 — 3% of the world total.

Most the people named in this piece are immigrants to Australia, as are the rest of us — regardless of whether we walked off an Airbus A380 last week or our ancestors walked across a land-bridge from Asia 40,000 years ago. We have all in our own way contributed to the vibrant, clever and prosperous country that we call home. Those people detailed above are a small sample of those that made significant contributions to our country — far outweighing any assistance the country gave immigrants to start their lives here. For the majority of the twentieth century Australia actively sought people to immigrate here through refugee programs, the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme and the resettlement of some 200,000 people, mostly from Asia, in the period 1975 to 1982, including 2,059 ‘boat people’. Yet in the twenty-first century we have a prime minister that got to power partly using the mantra of ‘stop the boats’.

Not that the ALP is blameless here. Since Keating introduced ‘detention’ centres, there has been a considerable amount of ‘me-too-ism’ in the policies of both major political parties in this country in regard to assisting refugees from all parts of the world who are seeking asylum in this country. Howard’s Coalition government seems to have managed the Tampa Affair, when a Norwegian ship picked up some refugees and attempted to land them on Australian soil, only to be refused, to maximise his Government’s vote.

Since then there has been a number of efforts to make various Government’s look ‘tough’ on border protection, usually at the expense of refugees. The Australian Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard was no more humanitarian than the LNP under Howard and Abbott. They all saw the potential for votes and have competed in this race to the bottom in abysmal treatment to fellow human beings.

So, instead of demonising these people for domestic political purposes, why wouldn’t a political party that wants to demonstrate fairness and equity to all change the conversation within Australia? Instead of punitive action against fellow humans — that in the majority are doing it far worse that any Australian — why not a conversation about how refugees over the past 60 years have brought a great deal of material benefit to this country? Examples could range from the ubiquitous country town café of the 1950s and 60s up until today when people travel half way across the world to be treated by a refugee from Iraq — as in the case of Michael Swain.

The Liberal Party website tells us that many years ago:

Robert Menzies believed the time was right for a new political force in Australia — one which fought for the freedom of the individual and produced enlightened liberal policies.

Ben Chifley around the same time gave his ‘light on the hill’ speech in which he stated:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective — the light on the hill — which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

It is neither enlightened nor for the betterment of mankind that people, who generally suffer incredible privations in order to better their lives, are treated as prisoners who do not have the same access to services provided to other immigrants and refugees who arrived here in the decades prior to the 1980’s.

How did the two major Australian political parties lose their desire to either ‘[bring] something better to the people … working for the betterment of mankind’ or fight ‘for the freedom of the individual and [produce]… enlightened liberal policies’?

When did the two major political parties become so morally corrupt that they both will use their fellow humans’ pain and suffering to gain political mileage? Isn’t it time that at least one of the two major political parties rediscovered morals and ethics?

What do you think?

In a galaxy far, far away … Australia

At Davos in Switzerland in January this year the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) took place. About 2,600 representatives of government, business, civil society and academia took part, from over a hundred countries. Australian businesses that attended included Leighton Holdings, Fortescue Metals, Westpac, Westfarmers, Coles and Telstra. International corporations included Nestlé, Royal Philips, Microsoft, HSBC, Total and Heineken. Among the political leaders were Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister; David Cameron, British prime minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister; and Hasan Rouhani, Iranian President. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was also there. Quite a gathering.

This year’s programme, which consisted of more than 250 official sessions, was organized under four thematic pillars: Achieving Inclusive Growth; Embracing Disruptive Innovation; Meeting Society’s New Expectations; and Sustaining a World of 9 Billion. Discussions on these issues challenged long-held assumptions about society, politics and business in an effort to generate the powerful ideas and collaborative spirit needed to manage the future course of world affairs.

Our prime minister (cough, spit!) was there and made a speech, one of 254 speakers (one for each official session). I will admit I began watching Tony Abbott’s speech when it was broadcast live on ABC News24 but, with my anger rising and the potential for collateral damage to the television and nearby furniture, was forced to turn it off. From what I later learned, I didn’t miss much. Here was I thinking that in a forum like the WEF Tony Abbott might actually say something meaningful … talk about being delusional!

What it did do, however, was make me look more deeply into what was being discussed at Davos and I was surprised at what I found. The range of issues on the agenda and the number of papers and reports supporting discussion was quite staggering. That led me to the title for this article. I know Abbott’s main reason (perhaps his only reason) for being there was that Australia is hosting the next G20 meeting in November this year and he was to give an outline as to where Australia would lead that meeting. But surely, given the issues being discussed at Davos, one would think he would address at least one of them in detail or dare to ‘challenge long held assumptions’ (as reported as an outcome of the meeting). No, not Abbott, he attacks the Labor party! He did brush on governance and taxation, but not in any profound way, and focused on free trade. He ignored almost all of the risks facing economies and businesses (after all, the WEF is dominated by big, and I mean big business) that are clearly laid out in the agenda for the meeting and, in particular, ignored the social risks.

There were papers on what is called ‘the global agenda’ and the trends for 2014. These forecasts are based on worldwide surveys of business people and samples of the general population prepared by Global Agenda Councils attached to the WEF. The top ten trending issues were:

1. Rising social tensions in the Middle East and North Africa
2. Widening income disparities
3. Persistent structural unemployment
4. Intensifying cyber threats
5. Inaction on climate change
6. Diminishing confidence in economic policies
7. A lack of values in leadership
8. The expanding middle class in Asia
9. The growing importance of megacities
10. The rapid spread of misinformation online.

The second major input was a report on ‘Global Risks’ (its ninth edition). The report for the 2014 meeting included the following top ten risks:

1. Fiscal crises in key economies
2. Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
3. Water crises
4. Severe income disparity
5. Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
6. Greater incidence of extreme weather events (eg floods, storms, fires)
7. Global governance failure
8. Food crises
9. Failure of major financial mechanism/institution
10. Profound political and social instability.

Fifty risks, including those ten, were plotted on a risk chart with the traditional axes of ‘Likelihood’ and ‘Impact’ (again based on survey responses). The events listed in the top right quarter (ie more likely with high impact) included:

  • Income disparity (most likely, seventh-highest impact)
  • Extreme weather events (second most likely, fifth-highest impact)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (third most likely, fourth-highest impact)
  • Climate change (fourth most likely, second-highest impact)
  • Cyber attacks (fifth most likely, eighth-highest impact)
  • Water crises (sixth most likely, third-highest impact)
  • Fiscal crises (seventh most likely, highest impact)
  • Ecosystem collapse (only rated fourteenth most likely, but sixth in terms of impact).
Obviously businesses are concerned about these risks, not for any altruistic reasons but for the impact on their capacity to ‘do business’ and their ‘bottom line’. In other words, for business these are seen as pressures on the market or issues that may distort the market. Also the social unrest that may result is not good for business — or government.

Putting the two lists together, it could be said that the key threats are:

  • Climate change and environmental issues (failure to address climate change, water crises, food crises, greater incidence of extreme weather events, ecosystem collapse)
  • Increasing inequality (widening/severe income disparity)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (structurally high unemployment, with particular emphasis on youth unemployment and its longer term implications for economies and social stability).
The reports indicate that while there is action on climate change it is not moving fast enough which, it is suggested, leads to the perception that little is being done. One report suggests $70-100 billion per year to 2050 is required in developed countries to effectively address climate change: another that, although $1 trillion has already been invested in renewable energy, a further $1 trillion per year is required. A complete transformation of economies is necessary: but one report positively suggests that such transformations have occurred before, eg the first industrial revolution and the digital revolution. So what is Australia doing? Eliminating the carbon tax and support for renewable energy industries. Our prime minister also suggests that fires and floods are normal in Australia, are not occurring at a more frequent rate, and that any expert who says otherwise is ‘talking through [their] hat’. To top it off on 6 February he proudly announced he wanted to make Australia the ‘affordable energy capital of the world’. How? By using cheap coal, the same energy source we are trying to reduce because of its impact on climate change. Yes, Australia has lots of cheap coal — just a shame that our grandchildren may not have much of a planet left on which to enjoy this cheap energy!

Yes, on climate change Abbott definitely believes Australia is on another planet. Or, perhaps as I suggested in an earlier post, taking us back to the 1800s: my prognostication in that article that we may need to use more coal and timber is coming true.

Forty-four per cent of Australians think the economic system favours the wealthy (from surveys conducted in 2013). That percentage is low on a global scale (60% in North America; 70% in Europe; 64% in Asia; 70% in the Middle East and North Africa) but still significant. The WEF reports indicate that while inequality is a major problem in developing countries, it is also significant in developed countries and has the capacity to increase social unrest:

The incredible wealth created over the last decade in the US has gone to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and this disparity stems from many of the same roots as in developing nations.

First among them is a lack of access to high quality basic primary and secondary education for all segments of our society. Additionally it has become prohibitively expensive for the average middle-income family to send their child to college in the US; higher education, once seen as the great equaliser and engine for economic mobility, is becoming unaffordable for far too many.

I will address inequality in a future post but here in Australia, following the argument in the quote, dismantling the full impact of the ‘Gonski’ funding reforms for education will only increase inequality; creating more independent ‘public’ schools is likely to lead to increased fees, further fuelling inequality; trying to reduce workers’ wages, such as the government’s recent submission to Fair Work Australia to examine whether penalty rates are still valid in a modern economy, may only lead to the ‘working poor’ and greater inequality as in America.

Unemployment appears not to be a major problem in Australia, although there is still significant youth unemployment and underemployment, which has been an issue for some years. Abbott’s approach, like John Howard’s, is that ‘any job is better than no job’ even if it is at the minimum wage or lower. It seems we will end up with a class of working poor not because of happenstance (read bad economic management) but because Abbott actually wants to create it — at least then some of the big companies supporting him will have the cheap labour they so crave.

The Global Risks report actually made ‘global governance failure’ the pivot of all the risks, arguing that as the risks are global or have global implications (especially for global corporations!), they therefore require global action. Such action is reliant on global governance mechanisms, so that was a major concern. To my mind, this is simply big business shifting the responsibility.

Why did Abbott ignore these issues at Davos? Why are Australian businesses ignoring them when the rest of the world’s businesses are seeing them as major threats? Perhaps our only hope is that the global corporations operating in Australia start making noises to the government that these issues should be addressed or they may take their business elsewhere. Other factors are already tempting big business to leave Australia: cheaper labour costs in Asia; and the emergence of the Asian middle class which prompts companies to take their production closer to such a large and growing market. If we don’t address other issues that global corporations are concerned about, such as those raised at Davos, what will we have left to attract any business — and that situation will be worsened by forcing the closure of our own local businesses with decisions like that regarding SPC-Ardmona.

One other interesting report, and it was a ‘featured’ report, which suggests it was deemed to have some significance, was ‘Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains’. A couple of quotes summarise the gist of the report:

Progressive companies and forward-looking governments are shifting their attention from old style sustainability — a linear concept that goes from take and use to dispose — towards a ‘circular’ approach. This ‘circular’ approach effectively decouples growth from rising resource constraints in a world that will add 3 billion middle-class consumers over the next 15 years …

… Leading global companies are already building the concept of the circular economy into the way they do business. It is helping them to drive innovation across product design, to develop product-to-service approaches and to test new ways of recovering materials from redundant products such as old mobile phones. Heineken, for example, is now pursuing circular practices across its whole value chain.

China is adopting the circular approach in its latest five-year plan.

For business, the approach is deemed profitable. The value of the market in consumer goods in Europe is estimated at €3.2 trillion ‘of which 20% could be recuperated through smart circular practices’. In layman’s terms it is about taking ‘recycling’ to the next level.

Has anyone heard of this being discussed in Australia? I certainly haven’t but I am retired and outside the loop where such things may be raised. But leaving that aside, I have not seen it mentioned in the many articles I read. (After completing my original version of this piece, I did eventually find one article in Casablanca’s excellent Cache) So where is Australia on this? On another planet, or just so far behind we can only see the dust of those ahead of us!

I honestly do not understand which planet Abbott (indeed, much of Australian big business) thinks we are on — it is certainly not the planet Earth in the Milky Way but perhaps another earth in a galaxy far, far away …

What do you think?

Is Australia becoming a guided democracy?

On 8 February 2014, there was a by-election for the federal seat of Griffith due to the resignation from politics of the former member Kevin Rudd. Terri Butler, representing the ALP, won the seat. This comment was posted on the Fairfax Media’s on-line coverage of the event:

I think I'd prefer a highly programmed robot rather than anything that's really been on offer from either right side of politics. They'll have to start making a new suit for the ALPLNP Party, a suit with two right arms with one just a little further right than the other.

It demonstrates the opinion of a considerable number of the population of Australia and can be summed up as ‘there is no or little difference between the ALP and LNP’, that whichever party one votes for the outcome will be the same.

Where countries seem to have free and fair elections but the result really doesn’t matter there is, as you would expect, a name for the concept — Guided Democracy. Wikipedia suggests that there have been a number of countries that have operated in this fashion either in the past or the present. They include Indonesia, Putin’s Russia and possibly even the USA.

Indonesia’s history since the end of World War 2 and independence from the Dutch is interesting. Between 1950 and 1998, there were only two Indonesian presidents — Sukarno and Suharto. The first, Sukarno, actually promoted his leadership as guided democracy or ‘Demokrasi Terpimpin’ from 1957. Rather than the traditional leadership model where the political elite devises and implements the policy of the government, Sukarno’s belief was that the government should be led in a similar way to traditional villages where the ‘elders’ consider and discuss the problem and then agree on a solution.

A central council of 42 people from a cross section of Indonesia was formed and tasked with considering issues and providing advice to Sukarno’s cabinet. While there was no requirement to comply with the advice, it was rarely ignored. The process was introduced in the late 1950’s apparently in an attempt to placate the military, religious groups and communists.

The military, religious groupings and communists then naturally attempted to increase their ‘power bases’. The military nationalised a number of Dutch companies; the religious commenced the ‘Islamic State’ debate; and the PKI (Communist Party) entrenched itself into all state institutions except for the cabinet. By the early 60’s, there was significant corruption and jockeying for position. However the PKI had ensured that it was the only political party with any strength.

Suharto was a ‘trusted’ major-general during Sukarno’s rule and was effectively ‘the last man standing’ after a coup attempt and became president in 1968. Although elections continued, the government also appointed 100 members to parliament. A People’s Consultative Assembly was also created to which the government appointed one-third of members.

The next ‘western’ style democratic election in Indonesia, after the declaration of Demokrasi Terpimpin, was not until 1999 after the fall of Suharto.

Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia. On 9 August 1999, then President Yeltsin appointed Putin as one of the three deputy prime ministers and later that day he was appointed the acting prime minister of the Russian Federation. Later again on the same day, Yeltsin was reported as suggesting that Putin should be his successor — and Putin agreed to run for president. A week later, the State Duma (parliament) confirmed Putin as prime minister.

Yeltsin resigned as president on 31 December 1999 and Putin was appointed acting president. Putin’s first decree was to ensure that corruption charges against Yeltsin and his family were not pursued. Putin then comfortably won the subsequent presidential election held in March 2000 (three months ahead of the scheduled date and before the opposition parties could organise).

Putin was re-elected president in 2004 and was legally not able to run in the 2008 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected in his place. The day after the election, Putin was appointed to the position of prime minister of the Russian Federation. Putin was subsequently re-elected as president in 2012, appointed Medvedev as prime minister and commenced action to stifle protest groups by imprisoning the leaders, removing the influence of non-governmental organisations that received foreign assistance, and pursuing a campaign of anti-American rhetoric, including the granting of asylum to Edward Snowdon — who is accused of leaking US diplomatic cables to various news organisations around the world.

A theory promoted by Sheldon Wolin suggests that the USA is heading on a similar path to the examples of guided democracy we have looked at above. Wolin’s theory is that instead of a ‘strong leader’ who is able to influence the country’s direction for an extended period (and the seemingly inevitable corruption that goes with that), corporations through lobbying and donations control government actions; the rise of political apathy is promoted (the only expectation is to vote and low turnouts are thought of as successful); and the election of ‘personalities’ rather than ‘people’ is supported. Wolin also claims there are similarities between the propaganda of Nazi Germany (as we recently briefly discussed here on The Political Sword) and the USA’s regular claim that they are the only world superpower and the home of democracy, which gives the US the ‘right’ to declare war and participate in actions that are clearly not democratic.

It could be suggested that a couple of state governments in Australia have been close to running a guided democracy — the prime examples being Queensland under the Country/National Party and South Australia under Playford.

The Country/Nationals & Liberal Party Coalition (subsequently the Nationals solely) were in power in Queensland for a 30 year period from 1957 to 1987 because those that lived west of the Great Dividing Range generally had a considerably greater number of MP’s for the level of population. Bjelke-Petersen was premier from 1968 to 1987. While Bjelke-Petersen didn’t implement the gerrymander, he certainly used it to his advantage. The embedded corruption in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era is well documented: there were proven corruption charges against a number of National Party ‘identities’ and Bjelke-Petersen himself was never cleared of corruption charges that were made against him. The then acting premier of Queensland (when Bjelke-Petersen was overseas) initiated the Fitzgerald enquiry, which eventually led to a fairer election system, as well as the reduction in influence that was held by National Party ‘connections’ and the police force.

Playford served as premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965 despite losing each election from 1947 on the popular vote. It took a protest by the public to start the process of fair and equitable boundaries, introduced by Playford’s successor.

So, is Australia in danger of becoming a guided democracy? A guided democracy seems to be reliant on a group of people being in power for decades and power being shared around the same group of people. That certainly isn’t the case in Australia with frequent leadership contests for parliamentary leadership. While corporations attempt to influence politicians, they cannot openly ‘buy a vote in Congress’ as they seem to be able to do in the USA. The military is not an economic force to be reckoned with or sharing power in Australia as seems to be the case in Indonesia. The Australian government allows open dissent to their position on any issue – unlike Putin’s Russia.

Let’s look at Australia’s record.

Are the same small groups of people continually power sharing? Occasionally someone who can demonstrate that they don’t follow the standard political norms in Australia can get up and win, such as Cathy McGowan in Indi at the 2013 federal election, or Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott effectively deciding who would be prime minister in the last parliament — they are certainly results that the ‘political establishment’ didn’t see coming. Has the same leader been ‘in power’ for a long period of time? The Coalition holds the federal record for a 23 year term, due in part to the ALP/DLP split of the 1950’s: although Menzies was prime minister for 17 of those years, there were another four leaders in the last six years. On the ALP side, the Hawke/Keating government lasted 13 years with two prime ministers.

Is there institutionalized corruption in Australia? Potentially yes — but not to the same level as Indonesia and Russia (and one could say parts of the USA where the politicians draw up the electoral boundaries and corporations can fund political campaigns).

Are political opponents jailed or killed? No — otherwise Abbott, Gillard, Rudd and Howard would have never become prime ministers!

Are Australians encouraged not to vote? No — voting is compulsory.

While economic policies, and unfortunately refugee policies, are similar, there are also significant differences in policy between the two major political parties in Australia, including in the areas of industrial relations, social policy, education and treatment of those that are less well off. Most importantly, there are genuine free and fair elections in Australia. There is also little doubt that the election results are fair and do not benefit any particular group. This was recently demonstrated by the Australian Electoral Commission requesting the court system to decide what action to take when it was found that almost 1400 votes were missing in the Western Australia senate election.

While there are certainly similarities between the policies and operation of the ALP and LNP, the actions of the current government in abolishing programs of the previous government demonstrates that the parties are not the same. Rather the comment that started this piece demonstrates that, rather than heading towards a guided democracy, both political parties are playing safe options to try and attract the majority of votes. While the tactic seems to be successful to a point, it has allowed smaller parties such as the Greens and Katter/Palmer to win over voters who are disaffected with what could be considered a move to the centre by both major parties in Australia. The rise and success of those smaller parties, and the influence they can wield in the senate, really is the nail in the coffin of any idea that Australia is heading towards a guided democracy.

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 3

Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

In Part 2 of these articles I discussed the Left’s approach to the new world in which we now live and suggested that adopting a measure such as Gross National Happiness (GNH) could help create a new approach to economics. I intend discussing that in full in another post but for now will explain why it is important.

In the previous articles I have also talked about the new ‘intellectual working class’. They earn better money than the ‘labouring working class’ and tend to be classified, financially, as middle class. But the new consumerism helps keep them locked into the role of wage slaves. More and more consumer goods are produced and pushed at them, locking them into working longer to fulfil their role as consumers. In fact, it is consumerism that is the key driver of the current economic growth model.

I believe there is a growing gulf between created consumer ‘wants’ (as opposed to ‘needs’) and the capacity to secure them. An economic model that continues to be based on that consumerism will lead to increasing dissatisfaction and discontent among portions of the population. That this may already be happening is reflected in a decline in ‘happiness’ in North America, Australia and New Zealand in the past decade. One danger in a modern consumer society is that some may see ‘happiness’ as merely more consumer goods.

Human dignity is another side of the ‘happiness’ equation.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and associated feelings of economic insecurity may also have contributed to the decline in ‘happiness’ (less so in Australia than the USA), but the GFC highlighted some of the problems of the globalised world. Whereas, in some countries, it is government corruption that attacks human dignity, in the GFC in the West it was the greed of the banks. People were treated merely as tools in achieving higher profits for the banks. The political system’s moral compass is also out of order when the banks are allowed to get away with risky undertakings that threaten the whole of society and are then bailed out because they are ‘too big to fail’. The banks have managed to place themselves above people and when that happens human dignity suffers. Indeed, the political emphasis on economics has the same effect.

In a globalised world where multi-national corporations can wield as much, if not more, influence on a nation’s economy than the government itself, people feel helpless. What is the point of a government if it cannot control what happens? If a government lacks control, people certainly feel more insecure because their livelihood may depend not on a government decision, a government over which they can have some influence, but on a global corporation over which they have no influence.

One of the slogans during the Tunisian, or ‘Jasmine’ revolution in 2011 was ‘Dignity before bread’. Compared to the nations around it, Tunisia was relatively prosperous, although there was an increase in unemployment at the time and risk was being moved from the State to the individual — just as it is in Australia. There was also government corruption. The young unemployed man whose self-immolation helped trigger the revolt had gone to the authorities to complain about his situation but was physically beaten, in total disregard of his human dignity.

In this globalised world, where people are becoming mere cogs in an international economy, where even their own governments are at the mercy of international financiers and corporations, and politicians pay more attention to the economy than to society, human happiness and human dignity are becoming the last refuges of what it means to be human.

‘People power’ is becoming more important in this new world, reinvigorated by the internet and social media.

Adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) and people power as fundamental to a well-functioning and sustainable economy appears to me a key way forward for the Left, and indeed for Labor in Australia, even if as a party seeking government Labor has to adopt the more moderate elements of these approaches.

The concept of Gross National Happiness as a measure of a nation’s economy and progress began in Bhutan with four ‘pillars’ and was expanded into nine ‘domains’.

The four pillars are: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

The domains are: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Gross National Happiness does not ignore economic growth, seeing it as necessary to alleviate poverty, provide health services, schools and so on. The major difference is that GNH measures economic progress not in terms of the dollar value of production and services but by the well-being it achieves for the people and the society.

It offers an approach that is consistent with many of the approaches of the Left in this new world: it is people-centred, including communities not just individuals; it is focused on well-being and equity; it includes key issues such as climate change; it supports human dignity. An important part of the Left and GNH approach is that these elements do not operate in isolation: they intertwine and each is essential for overall happiness and dignity and genuine people-centred economic progress.

People are central to the Left approach. It is their well-being, happiness and dignity that should also be central to any left-of-centre government’s approach.

Our sense of community has diminished. At university I read about miners in the UK, and indeed at Newcastle in Australia, having a strong sense of egalitarianism that was fostered by overlapping work and neighbourhood networks. In our more diversified and mobile world that is unlikely to return: people in the same neighbourhood are now more likely to be in places of employment scattered around the suburbs. (Perhaps that is the reason that governments now spend millions on providing major events, attempting to create a sense of community across many neighbourhoods.) It is, however, possible to create local ‘communities of interest’ by involving people in issues that concern them — and now they can also be virtual ‘communities’ through the power of the internet.

Such involvement is the other key aspect of the Left approach to people. The New Left would be content with various forms of consultation and involvement in policy development but the radical Left would seek more autonomy, or structures in which people can actually make decisions.

Equity has long been at the core of Left beliefs. There are two major aspects of equity: one regarding the rights and freedoms of people; and the other, the economic and social equity of groups in society, including the vulnerable and minorities.

The Right of course believes that equity is achieved by removing government from the picture and allowing individuals to choose what they wish. Unfortunately, in the 250 years since the first industrial revolution, it is obvious to all but the Right that this approach does not work — many are left behind without the resources to make the choices this approach supposedly allows. The Left believe in government intervention to achieve the desired outcomes. That needs to remain central to Labor policies as we are now seeing what happens if governments kow-tow to the rich industrialists, entrepreneurs and financiers of the nation (it was a similar failing that helped undermine New Labour in the UK).

Quality of life was a New Left issue that needs to remain: it can cover everything from climate change to local transport and amenities, culture and general human dignity.

The climate change message can be sold as a quality-of-life issue. The LNP effectively did this in Opposition, in a negative way, by arguing that measures to address climate change would impact people’s livelihoods and standard of living. This needs to be countered with the quality of life downside if nothing is done.

Local amenities are always important in politics, to all sides: where else does ‘pork-barrelling’ come from? But local amenities should be put into a quality-of-life context as part of an overall vision for people across the nation, not just locally, a vision that promises to provide social amenities and enhance equity.

The radical Left would see local amenities as a question for the local people supported by government, not decided by government (the approach to people). There is a strong case for such an approach. I recall from my working years a situation where a community was offered funding to support the health of its older residents. The community, however, said that it wanted lights on the local outdoor basketball court. The public servants, of course, had difficulty with whether that would fit within the guidelines for funding but somehow the community view prevailed and the benefits were surprising. In a community that had no street lights, the lighted basketball court attracted the young people, so that they were less likely to be wandering about the community at night causing disturbances; as it was the only lit area, adults also tended to congregate there, particularly on hot nights, which brought a level of supervision over the young people; older people also came to the area, meaning, rather than being isolated in their homes, they were also being watched over by the community. That provides a classic example of how local people, more often than not, know better what is required.

Economics is not really a key element but one that in current politics needs to be addressed, particularly given the political domination of neo-liberal economics. It is, of course, complicated by the global corporations that restrict the power and influence governments can exercise over their own economy.

While the prevailing view is that a successful economy can be used to achieve social equity and other beneficial outcomes, a more radical Left view would draw on new economic approaches required to meet the challenge of climate change and improve Gross National Happiness.

It is unrealistic to expect a prospective government to abandon the current emphasis on economics but Labor should be able to change the nature of the debate. It can give more emphasis to the social outcomes of economic policies and also the social drivers of economics. It should begin adopting measures leaning towards Gross National Happiness, even if politically it is unable to adopt them in full, and pursue the argument that real economics is about how we use and distribute our resources, including human, social and environmental, not just capital. It can claim support of manufacturing by promoting and supporting environmental and renewable energy industries — something that was done under Julia Gillard but, unfortunately, without sufficient emphasis on the positive impact for manufacturing. There are many avenues available for Labor to change the tenor of the economic debate and it should take these up.

Another aspect of the New Left approach is addressing individual issues. Many of the issues pursued by the New Left remain relevant in Australia today, perhaps more so in the face of Abbott’s attacks on welfare, workers and marginalised groups. Not all voters are interested in all issues and they may not support a full range of Left (or progressive) approaches, but if their interest can be gained for the issues they believe in part of the battle is won. It may even be possible to attract the interest of some groups who normally support the LNP, for example by addressing the issue of fracking, which is a concern to many rural communities.

The differences between the New Left and the working class and its unions were overcome to some extent because there were common issues on which they could join (although significant differences remained). Strength will come by emphasising the commonalities and networking between groups.

Change can also come if Labor links itself to some of the new social movements that may arise, just as it eventually did with the anti-Vietnam War movement. It was the Labor Left that drove that linkage and perhaps it will be again, with future links.

The Fifth Estate is part of the new people power and how we use that power is crucial for success. Progressive blogs generally support Labor and they can continue to attack Abbott and point out his mistakes but that will have only limited influence on those who are not already leaning to Labor or the Left. Some middle-of-the-road or undecided voters will see it as no more than they would expect from ‘the Left’. They may not like Abbott particularly but will react negatively to repeated negative attacks.

The worst mistake Left and progressive blogs can make, as Jeff Sparrow pointed out immediately after the election, is to attack the voters as fools, or dupes of, for example, Murdoch: ‘In any case, blaming the populace amounts to a category error. It’s the task of the Left to persuade people’, he wrote.

At the moment progressive blogs tend to be reactive to political events. They rarely come out and say ‘this is what progressives stand for’ or describe what progressives propose should be done to improve the future. The book I reviewed, Pushing our luck: ideas for Australian progress, provides a range of progressive policies for the future. There is scope for more radical prescriptions that may not succeed but, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, add to the depth of the debate. Attacking Abbott’s mistakes is a valid approach but it needs to be interspersed with more positive messages that appeal to the many different groups that are affected by his decisions — even identify groups that have been affected and write pieces about how they can be better supported under a progressive approach.

Sell a positive message and it may also attract readers who are sitting on the political fence. Include in blogs pieces on civil liberties and personal freedoms, the lack of social amenities in communities, the decline in public services, the failings of the health and education systems and the growing inequality in society. State what a progressive vision means for these issues. There are clearly different sites that already achieve aspects of this but perhaps they need to link more closely and share more comprehensively.

There is room for all aspects of the Left agenda, from progressive views to radical views.

Can they be openly debated to create a more unified Left agenda and also a meaningful but more moderate left-of-centre stance for Labor?

Of course, failing all else, we can take to the barricades again as in 1968.

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 2

A new world for the Left

The break-up of the Soviet Union, the Velvet and Orange Revolutions and the Arab Spring show that mass movements can still achieve social and political change, with or without violence. But the capacity of the State is a key factor in such circumstances — whether it has the strength or will to respond with, and maintain force until the movement is crushed and, occasionally, whether the State’s organs of force will continue to support it or go over to the protestors.

Despite its apparent failure, there was a lasting legacy from the student protests of 1968. Some of its issues, such as human rights, became mainstream issues. The New Left rose in the 1970s, a phoenix from the ashes of 1968. The New Left addressed issues rather than overt political change, an idea that had arisen among some socialist thinkers in the 1950s such as Anthony Crossland in the UK, quoted by Frank Bongiorno on ‘Inside Story’:

Ownership of capital now mattered less than who managed it. In these circumstances, the old preoccupation with nationalisation made little sense. Even greater equality could be achieved through progressive taxation and the education system, while socialists needed to turn their attention to what he called “deficiencies in social capital … ugly towns, mean streets, slum houses, overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals, understaffed mental institutions, too few homes for the aged, indeed a general, and often squalid lack of social amenities.” In an age of abundance, socialists would also necessarily give attention to what would become known as quality of life issues: the environment, culture and civil liberties, “personal freedom, happiness, and cultural endeavour: the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement.”

The Old Left and many in the working class, however, saw that as a betrayal. It led to divisions within the Left. Many of the New Left were seen as middle class and lacking understanding of the political needs of the working class. But as alluded to in Part 1 of these articles many became, in reality, a new working class — the college and university educated required by the new industrial order to keep it functioning. No longer just an elite to join the ruling class, university graduates were, as much as the old labouring working class, a new intellectual working class who were also wage slaves, their employment just as precarious.

In Australia, the radical Left was marginalised in the 1970s, including some of the more radical unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which was effectively closed down in 1976 after its successful ‘Green Bans’. While radical Left groups remained (and still remain) in existence they were small and mostly outside the mainstream political system.

Within politics, the Victorian Left of the ALP had been the most radical but in the lead-up to Whitlam’s election it was emasculated by a Federal ALP intervention. It was believed that Labor was not electable while that Old Left philosophy was still being pursued and still existed within some Labor policies. The issues then became more about the New Left agenda drawing in voters who were financially middle class (even if, as I keep repeating, many were actually the new working class). Whitlam’s withdrawal from Vietnam after he was elected removed the single biggest issue on which the radical Left had been able to garner wide support.

It was, in my opinion, the approach of the New Left that allowed mainstream left-of-centre political parties to accept the neo-liberal economic agenda that arose in the 1980s. I say this (not having read any similar analysis) because the focus on issues basically left the political system unchallenged.

It was the two oil crises of the 1970s and the associated economic downturns that contributed to the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan adopted the new economics eagerly. After the economic problems of the previous decade, many voters were also willing to accept the approach. The New Left had little to say on the systemic issues but remained vocal on specific impacts of the approach. The Old Left were marginalised or, like the miners in the UK, crushed by the State. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 some remnants of the Old Left also lost the bastion of their faith.

Hence we come to my conclusion in Part 1: that economics has come to dominate the political debate.

Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in England, and Clinton in America, as left-of-centre governments, operated in this new context — with the view that equity could not be achieved in the absence of a strong economy. The Old Left’s challenges to the whole economic system (capitalism) were but distant cries from the wilderness. The new approach was put this way by Anthony Giddens in a New Statesman article:

… the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left — solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government — remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in the information age, the emergence of a more voluble citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Part of the rationale of New Labour in the UK was that a growing economy would allow extra funding for social issues without the need to raise taxes. As in Australia, UK Labour governments had been accused of being high taxing and high spending.

Globalisation of capital, production and distribution was also reducing the influence governments had on their own economy. Many countries could no longer pressure local corporations as major decisions were being made in Tokyo, New York, Detroit and London (to which we could now add Shanghai and Seoul). International organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were additional sources of decision making that could create havoc with the political and economic choices available to governments. As Lauren Langman wrote, international corporations and agencies were increasingly dictating trade policies, tariff rates, investment laws, copy rights, labour conditions, and so on and this is continuing in more recent Free Trade Agreements.

The internet has increased the pace of globalisation. The almost instantaneous movement of capital can impact national economies with governments having little control. Information guiding corporate decisions is also now available almost in ‘real time’. A government going through its normal checks and balances and relying on cabinet decision-making processes can no longer match the speed of corporate and financial decision making. It has become a case of letting the pack run and hoping to influence how or where it runs.

Globalisation, however, has also changed social movements. The internet has created a new public space in which ideas — from the extreme right to the extreme left, and every opinion in between — can be expressed. It can also be used to organise and mobilise groups of similar views, no longer just locally or nationally but on a global scale.

The Zapatistas in Mexico in 1994 was one of the first movements to make full use of the new technology, fighting the Mexican government not just with arms but with information spread around the world, leading to the creation of solidarity groups in many countries as well as throughout Mexico. Perhaps because of the international attention they generated the Zapatistas have continued to this day to maintain autonomous areas in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The anti-globalisation movement (Peoples’ Global Action) from late in the 1990s also used the internet to create a global response and mobilised protests at WTO and G8 meetings around the world. At a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 about forty to fifty thousand protestors shut down the city centre and disrupted the first day of the meeting. Police eventually responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. At the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001 the total protest group was estimated between 150,000 and 200,000. The first group of about eight to ten thousand marching towards the barricades around the G8 meeting place faced an unprovoked attack with tear gas by police, which started the battle that followed. The police response was heavy-handed, drawing no distinction between the more violent Black Bloc (anarchists) and non-violent protestors. One person was killed. A school where some protestors were staying overnight was raided and people severely beaten. Like the 1968 student protests, it was met with the force and violence of the State and is now called the ‘Battle of Genoa’.

Governments, aware of these developments, have at different times attempted to create forms of internet censorship which, so far, have been resisted. Recent revelations have shown that, instead of censorship, massive monitoring of the internet has been the response of security agencies. Spying and force remain the State’s main control mechanisms and that hasn’t changed since Machiavelli’s time.

Despite the changes in the world, the vision of the Left retains its emphasis on people and equity. It rejects the purely economic approach and the economic rationalist idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which mistakenly believes that if the rich get richer everybody benefits.

It could be said that one difference between the New Left and the more radical Left is that the New Left accepts equity as a goal whereas there is still a stronger element of equality in the radical Left.

Similarly, both believe in the involvement of people but perhaps the New Left believes more in terms of social movements to influence politics whereas the more radical Left still believes in control by the people, that is, the people being in a position to make decisions and not merely influence them.

The New Left tends to be more about human rights and the rights of marginalised groups and minorities. The Old Left often had a more communal focus, with its emphasis on collectives, cooperatives and so on. I believe there is still space for both, or at least space for that debate to continue as new economic models are required for the future.

The New Left focuses on issues of equity and quality of life. The more radical Left still yearns for political change but with the collapse of communist governments has been less certain of the approach until the success of the Zapatistas. The democratic socialism of Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Ecuador, was also influenced by, among other factors, the Zapatistas. It could be said now that ‘people power’ is back on the agenda.

Some of the more radical Left movements arising in the 1980s had focused on ‘autonomy’, rejecting any political system and creating loosely woven local groups. They did not believe in creating political networks and so also tended to operate independently. The main difference with earlier Left groups was that they gave much greater emphasis to individual self-determination: they rejected the New Left’s emphasis on social issues just as the New Left rejected their individualism.

How the Left should now approach economics is an open question. Other than the three South American countries adopting forms of twenty-first century democratic socialism, capitalism now dominates, including in the former Soviet Union and China (even if in China it is a form of State-directed capitalism). It has become more difficult for the Left to point to any functioning alternative economic system. The effort to challenge the economic system, if it exists at all, often aims more at ‘capitalism with a heart’ rather than open attacks on the system.

One avenue that may lead to consideration of alternative economic systems is in the debate about climate change, although at present much of that debate still takes place in the context of a capitalist market system.

There is, however, also a movement considering ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measurement of economic progress, an approach adopted by Bhutan in 1972. This is not a crack-pot movement but includes academics, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and the United Nations. Even the OECD has issued guidelines on measuring well-being. The penny is beginning to drop that our current economic system, which relies on perpetual growth, cannot continue indefinitely into the future. This provides fertile ground for a new approach to economics by the progressive and Left elements in politics.

An agenda for the Left in this new world needs to draw on elements from all of these: some aspects from the radical Left, some from the New Left, and some from the social movements that are arising around climate change, anti-globalisation and the GNH approach.

The Labor Party in Australia should also draw on these, although in the chase for government the more moderate positions are likely to prevail. That does not mean, however, that more radical positions should not be debated, particularly on Left-leaning websites and even among Labor party members. As I have pointed out in these articles, a radical stance may not achieve all that it intends but it can create small shifts along the path. Human rights may not have become a dominant mainstream issue without the student revolt of 1968!

Part 3 to follow: Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 1

A History Lesson: the revolutionary period

My politics was moulded in the late 1960s, a great time in my view for the Left. The ’60s (into the ’70s) was dominated by revolutionary and liberation movements around the world — an era when Africa was completing its decolonisation. For want of a better phrase, I was an ‘armchair revolutionary’, although I was active in sit-ins and demonstrations. I drew my inspiration from the Black and Celtic liberation movements: the ANC in South Africa, the Black Panthers in America, the IRA in Ireland, ETA in the Basque country and the MAC in Wales (as tiny as that last group was). I accepted that violence was a legitimate means to counter the violence of the State. Yes, the ‘terrorism’ of the time but as was said in 1975 (admittedly in a novel) ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. (I would like to point out that the ‘terrorists’ of the time usually tried to avoid or minimise civilian casualties, unlike current terrorists who specifically target civilians.)

From 1960, Africa’s process of decolonisation proceeded rapidly. Seventeen countries gained independence in 1960, a further fifteen in the rest of the decade, and nine in the 1970s, but the process was not easy. Decolonisation proceeded on the basis of boundaries that had been imposed by the colonial powers, often simply lines drawn on maps in European capitals that bore little relationship to the different peoples who made up the ‘nations’ within those borders. In 1967, for example, the Biafran war commenced as the people of eastern Nigeria sought their own independence (I supported Biafran freedom) and in 1976 Western Sahara was granted independence but was immediately seized by neighbouring Morocco (which has led to a continuing conflict).

In South Africa apartheid was in full flow, leading to the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 in which 69 died and 180 were seriously wounded. The following year MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed by Nelson Mandela as the militant arm of the ANC. When passive resistance was met by violence, some in the ANC thought that a violent response was the only answer. Initially the MK’s targets were infrastructure and government installations which led to the charge of sabotage against Mandela at his trial in 1964.

In America, the civil rights movement had been campaigning since the 1950s (the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955). The first Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964, but civil rights demonstrations were still being attacked by state troopers in 1965; Malcolm X was also assassinated that year. The Black Panthers formed in 1966. Race riots in Newark and Detroit in 1967 each began as a result of police actions in Black areas. As well as police, the National Guard responded in both instances: in Newark after six days of rioting 23 people were dead, 725 injured and almost 1,500 arrested; in Detroit from five days of rioting, 43 died, 1,189 were injured and over 7,000 arrested. These were but a curtain-raiser to the massive rioting across America following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr in April 1968.

In Ireland, the official IRA was in decline and would be effectively replaced by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969; in Wales, MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, ‘Movement for the Defence of Wales’) carried out a number of bombings between 1963 and 1969; and in the Basque country ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ‘Homeland and Liberty’) began its bank robberies and shootings during the 1960s and became more active in the 1970s.

Students had already played a major part in the civil rights movement in America. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 but from 1965 adopted a more radical stance drawing on the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Even in Biafra, it was university lecturers and their students who formed the basis of the Biafran army. While many of these movements had their genesis in the previous years it came to a head in 1968 with student risings around the world.

In Mexico, student unrest began in 1967 and escalated prior to the 1968 Olympic Games: one of their key demands was that more should be spent on domestic needs rather than the Games. The government response, however, led to bigger demonstrations and student strikes culminating in police occupying two tertiary institutions in September 1968. About 14,000 people, mostly students, rallied at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (‘Plaza of the Three Cultures’) in the suburb of Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 2 October. The police and the army moved violently on the rally: although the number of deaths has never been confirmed, it has been estimated at anything between 40 and 400. It became known as the ‘Night of Sorrow’.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro students rioted for two weeks in March after a student had been killed by police. Three more students died and schools were closed and Rio occupied by the army. Riots spread throughout the country and continued until 1,240 students were arrested in Sao Paulo in October.

In Argentina, 23 students were shot dead in May 1968, and 400 students occupied the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires on June 12 in protest at the government's repression. Exactly three months later, a student strike in the capital erupted into a bloody clash with police.

In Japan in June of 1968 students occupied the medical school of the Todai University in Tokyo — considered the most prestigious in Japan. The occupation was not lifted until January 1969 after a three-day battle with police.

In Italy, during 1968 most universities were taken over by students and run by democratic assemblies. This trend started at Turin in 1967, spread to Rome early in 1968 and then, as the student revolt in France revealed itself, spread with sit-ins and student strikes and increasing contact with workers’ movements, culminating in a strike two million strong in 1969.

In West Germany, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) was the dominant radical student organisation. A student was killed by police in a demonstration against a visit by the Shan of Iran in June 1967: 20,000 marched in his funeral procession. At the annual Easter peace march in 1968, 300,000 marched in the midst of upheaval caused by the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke (‘Red Rudi’), one of the principal spokespersons of SDS. Further demonstrations followed the shooting and the Bundestag (parliament) was preparing emergency laws to control the social unrest. That itself led to larger demonstrations and strikes against the laws. On the day the emergency laws were passed, 20 May, demonstrations blocked traffic in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Hanover; in Munich, the tracks at the central train station were blocked by thousands of people; and in Bonn, 100,000 marched in protest. The Left in Germany took a more militant direction in the form of the Red Army Faction and the June 2 Movement but as a mass movement it began to decline after internal disagreements and a fear of ‘Left fascism’.

In France, the disturbances began at Nanterre University in March, initially about university issues. It was the heavy-handed response of closing the university in May that helped trigger the wider revolt. The violent police response to the subsequent student street marches and barricades brought support from workers and a General Strike was called for 13 May. On that day 800,000 to 1,000,000 demonstrators marched in Paris. Having earlier closed the Sorbonne in response to student protests, the Government reopened it after the 13 May strike, but it was then occupied by students and declared an ‘autonomous people’s university’. Workers also began occupying their factories — managers were locked in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. By 20 May 1968, ten million workers were on strike. Eventually De Gaulle responded by calling a new election and threatening a state of emergency — 20,000 troops were being prepared for the occupation of Paris. Workers won improved pay and conditions and drifted back to work. Police retook the Sorbonne on 6 June. Student demonstrations were banned on 12 June. De Gaulle overwhelmingly won the election later in June and a bill reforming higher education was passed soon after.

In addition to the above examples, student unrest occurred in countries as diverse as Uruguay, Spain, Poland, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

It was also the year of the birth of ‘liberation theology’ within the Catholic Church in South and Central America.

It had been American students who pioneered the ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupation’ (of buildings), starting at Berkeley in 1964. In 1968 student unrest continued in America, such as the ‘occupation’ at Columbia University, protesting the university’s involvement in weapons research and also local racism. Police broke up the sit-in in a five-hour battle in which 150 people were injured and 700 arrested. This, and events such as the Chicago Democratic Convention riot in August, led to the radicalisation of the student movement and some militant groups, for instance ‘The Weathermen’, were formed.

American student unrest, however, actually reached a peak two years later in May 1970.

The 1970 student protests were widespread. They started in April at Yale University with support for the Black Panthers, demanding the release of Bobby Seale, but at the end of the month Nixon announced the invasion (called an ‘incursion’) of Cambodia and the two issues melded. By mid-May more than 500 colleges and universities were directly involved with strikes and protests and by the end of May the number climbed to about 900. George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left, described the response to the May demonstrations like this:

During May, over 100 people were killed or wounded by the guns of the forces of law and order. Besides the four murdered and ten wounded at Kent State on May 4 and the two people murdered and twelve wounded at Jackson State on May 14, six black people were murdered and twenty were wounded in Augusta, Georgia; eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico; twenty people suffered shotgun wounds at Ohio State; and twelve students were wounded by birdshot in Buffalo.

The ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia was an event of a somewhat different kind. Student protests against the leadership of Novotny in October 1967 contributed to his replacement by Dubček in January 1968. In response to Dubček’s reforms the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on 20 August. Students were again involved in the passive resistance that followed. They avoided confrontation (even the Government ordered the small Czechoslovakian army to remain in its barracks) so as to give no excuse to the Soviets for military action. Dubček was taken to Moscow on 23–26 August and agreed to water down the reforms in return for remaining in power, but resistance continued until Dubček was replaced in April 1969 and the new government cracked down on protests.

Why were students at the forefront of these protests and demonstrations? In simple terms, they were youthful, without the responsibilities that may have held back their elders and they were partially segregated on campuses which gave them a critical mass for action. And in an important sense they were continuing the struggles of the working class. They were not really a new middle class, as some have claimed, but an emerging new working class. Following WW2, intellect was being commodified and added to the production process.

The role of college training is increasingly important for the functioning of industrialized societies. Large-scale industry needs more technicians within its offices to coordinate space-age production, more managers to administer it, more psychologists to find ways of keeping employees working, advertising specialists to market the goods of the new consumer society and sociologists to maintain the system's overall capacity to function.

The radical students and those who followed are often referred to as the New Left, but what was new about it? It was inspired by the writings of people like Frantz Fanon and the speeches of Malcolm X; it utilised Che Guevara’s theories of guerrilla warfare, not to wage war, but to organise in new ways; it rejected not only the capitalist system but the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Communism. And although there were political elements to their demands, many demands questioned basic social assumptions of the time —‘the cultural conformity of consumerism, the oppression of women, discrimination against minorities, and the segregation of youth.’ Human rights and the human condition were often central to or underpinned their demands. The students challenged governments for not living up to social ideals.

The movements were not successful, owing primarily to massive repression by the State — the number of deaths throughout the world testify to that. The workers who were involved often returned to normal work as unions reasserted control by negotiating improved wages and conditions.

The integrity of the New Left's vision and the high hopes of movement participants were some of its chief strengths, but with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the failure of the near-revolution in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pre-Olympic massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City, and the election of Richard Nixon, the hopes of the New Left were dashed against the hard rocks of reality.

Another crucial factor in their failure was internal dissent, as debate centred on the way forward. As the State reaction was violent some leaned towards responding in kind. But many women in the movement turned away from that, seeing it as a ‘macho militaristic’ stance. There were internal inconsistencies within the movements.

The world has changed. Since then there have been successful people’s movements such as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine but these occurred in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union when the respective States were less willing to intervene with force.

At a political level, thanks largely to Thatcher and Reagan, economics has come to dominate political discourse. The old idea of an equitable society has been subsumed, even within centre-left political parties, by the idea that equity cannot be achieved without a strong economy. There is some validity to that but the debate has moved too far in that direction. Those espousing social change are drowned out by the economists.

We also suffer from the fact that many revolutionary movements these days are in the Middle East among Islamic societies and they tend to be right-wing, especially with the fervour of the Islamic fundamentalists – that does not provide any sustenance to the Left in the West. (Although I note as a late addition to this piece that the Ukraine is at it again and more power to them!)

So where does that leave us? Part 2 to follow – A New World for the Left.

What do you think?

The Xmas attack on climate change

Human-caused global warming is the single biggest threat facing humanity today. Solving it requires a rapid worldwide transition to renewable energy economies, leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. Preserving a habitable climate depends on decisions made in this decade. At less than 1°C of global warming, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives, including worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires. Under current policies we’re headed for 4°C warming or greater, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. Civilization has flourished over the past 10,000 years because a stable climate sustained us (global temperature varied but less than 1°C). An increase of 4°C would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt. 

Yet over the Xmas break while you were distracted with seasonal festivities and summer sports, the Abbott government quietly progressed policies which will exacerbate the problem, following a long-standing tradition of avoiding scrutiny by making announcements during the holidays.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt (who would be more appropriately titled the Anti-Environment Minister) approved Adani’s proposed coal export terminal, and dredging for two other new terminals, at the (appropriately named) Abbot Point. Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port and open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would export enough coal to produce potentially 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, almost twice Australias domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries. Hunt also approved four other fossil fuel projects: an Arrow coal seam gas processing facility on Curtis Island; a transmission pipeline to supply it; billionaire politician Clive Palmer’s China First mine; and the Surat Gas Expansion (the last two on the Friday before Xmas).

They joined two previously approved Galilee coal projects: GVK’s and Hancock’s Kevin’s Corner mine (approved in November), and GVK’s Alpha mine (approved by the former government in 2012).

In his press release approving the Abbot Point expansion, Hunt had the gall to say: ‘Today I am announcing new plans to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. His plan consists of ensuring dredging occurs close to the shore — never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering humans. The approval process ignores climate change because emissions from burning the coal will occur overseas. But denying responsibility for those emissions is like believing we won’t be harmed by cigarettes we sell to a chain-smoker in our lounge room.

The industry department released an energy issues paper early in December. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has accused the former Labor government of having ‘bungled its Energy White Paper process [by introducing] the carbon tax and mining tax, and new layers of regulation and red tape’ — code for saying it wasn’t fossil-fuel-friendly enough. Macfarlane’s issues paper outlines the Government’s energy policy priorities: fossil fuel industry growth, productivity, environmental deregulation, and marketing fossil fuels to the public. It foreshadows possible consideration of investing in nuclear power and dividing up the Renewable Energy Target (RET) into bands including emerging technologies, reinforcing the Government’s incorrect belief that existing renewables cannot provide 100% of Australia’s energy. It says the major contributor to electricity prices, network costs, will continue rising, revealing the Government’s hypocrisy in complaining about the relatively small price impacts of climate policies. Instead we should invest in energy efficiency and renewables, where prices are falling rapidly as technologies and scale improve. It seems the Government really wants higher electricity prices because that means greater profits for fossil-fuel-fired generators.

Also in December, the prime minister’s department released terms of reference for an agriculture white paper which failed to mention climate change. It is not clear how the Government expects Australian agriculture to prosper in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions and coal seam gas development promoted by the Energy White Paper. The Government has since announced a drought policy which also fails to account for climate change.

The Government’s budget update, MYEFO, cut funding to the Australian network of Environmental Defender’s Offices (which provide expert legal advice on environmental issues and are thus opposed by mining companies) and the Energy Efficiencies Opportunities Program (which actually raises public income, but is opposed by generators because reducing energy demand lowers their profits). There were no cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. The document contained no mention of the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of the climate Direct Action Plan. The only fully costed climate policy was $800 million over five years for the ‘Green Army’, which would employ 15,000 young people to take feel-good actions like re-vegetation and clearing rivers, which fail to target the main cause of global warming, the fossil fuel industry.

In an interview, Tony Abbott indicated the RET may be scrapped or weakened by an upcoming review, claiming it causes ‘pretty significant price pressures’ and he would consult with his business advisor Maurice Newman, a climate change denier who opposes the RET. In fact, the RET has reduced wholesale electricity prices: a 2012 review found the cost impact of the RET was minuscule, and the major factor in rising retail electricity prices was over-investment in poles and wires. Again, Abbott’s real concern is that the RET reduces profits for coal-fired generators. The RET review will be conducted by a panel including several climate change deniers. It looks like history is going to repeat itself: the last time the Liberals were in government, they colluded with the fossil fuel industry to sabotage their own Renewable Energy Target.

In the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks, Australia offered to agree to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in exchange for greater access to sugar markets, while Trade Minister Andrew Robb announced a Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement also including ISDS. Investor-state dispute settlement would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits in an unaccountable tribunal with unlimited powers. Any effective climate policy would threaten corporate profits, and hence could be overturned through ISDS. This represents an attack on national sovereignty and democracy at a time when we need accountable government more than ever.

The Government has refused to publically release the text of either agreement, even after the Senate passed a Greens motion ordering them to release the text of the TPP.* Robb says ISDS will not apply to ‘public welfare, health and the environment’, but similar safeguards in the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement failed to be implemented. It looks like free trade talks are being used as an opaque avenue to sneak through policies advancing corporate power which can’t be achieved through democratic domestic political processes. An Australia Institute survey found that only 11% of Australians know about the TPP, almost 90% want the details of such deals made public before they are signed, and 75% oppose allowing American corporations to sue Australian governments.

At the Council of Australian Governments, all states and territories signed up to take on responsibility for federal environmental assessment powers within 12 months (including Labor governments, despite federal Labor claiming to now oppose the policy). This made official what began in September as a secret agreement between the federal Government and the coal state Queensland. State governments are notoriously pro-development: that is, even more so than federal ones. As Greens Senator Larissa Waters pointed out, "If states had this power in the past, the Franklin River would be dammed, cattle would be grazing in the Alpine National Park and there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef.’

In Parliament, Labor helped the Government pass legislation through the lower house preventing Australians from legally challenging projects approved before 1 January 2014 on environmental grounds. (The bill is now before the Senate.) This effectively allowed the Government to dodge accountability for ignoring expert advice on the environmental impacts of any project approved prior to 2014.

Attorney-General George Brandis appointed the IPA’s Tim Wilson as ‘freedom commissioner’ at the Human Rights Commission (which the IPA want abolished). Unlike other commissioners, Wilson did not have to apply for the job; Brandis just rang him up and asked if he wanted it. Wilson argues he is qualified because ‘Private property is in itself a human right, and one of the things that I have always focused on is free trade which is ultimately an extension of private property’ and suggests that critics of his appointment ‘look at human rights as some sort of legal gift from government’. Wilson’s comment on Occupy Melbourne was ‘send in the water cannons‘. Brandis also announced a law reform inquirywhich will focus largely on the supposed infringement of corporate rights by environmental regulations. Destroying the environment we depend on apparently does not count as an infringement of freedom.

Finally, on 20 December the environment department released the Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper, which essentially remains the ineffective voluntary climate policy the government took to the election. Also announced was an Expert Reference Group to advise on the Fund’s design, whose members are almost all corporate lobbyists who oppose strong climate action. And of course Abbott continues to push legislation to repeal the carbon price, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Climate Change Authority.

With no remaining legal avenue to challenge approved mining projects, protestors blocked construction at Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine in NSW. Simon Copland from wrote about it afterwards:

It is unfortunate that it has to come to this, but we have no choice. When the Government fails, as it has so drastically with this mine and with so many other coal and gas mines around the country, it is up for [sic] the community to take a stand.

This government is only a few months old and already its level of secrecy, deception, misdirection, and irresponsibility on climate policy is staggering. Abbott says, ‘Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics.’ But the game our future depends on is being played out in Canberra, as far from a public audience as Tony Abbott can get.

* The details of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) were finally released on 17 February and it does include the ISDS.

Green parasols

'You have come down here to see an election - eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?' The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.

'And what is the likely result of the contest?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

'Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,' replied the little man. 'Fizkin's people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.'

'In the coach-house!' said Mr. Pickwick, much astonished.

'They keep 'em locked up there till they want 'em,' resumed the little man. 'The effect, you see, is to prevent our getting at them. Even if we could, it would be of no use, for they keep them very drunk on purpose. Smart fellow, Fizkin's agent very smart fellow indeed.

'We are pretty confident, though,' said Mr. Perker, his voice sinking almost to a whisper. 'We had a little tea-party here last night, five-and-forty women, my dear sir and gave every one of 'em a green parasol when she went away. Five and-forty green parasols, at 7/6d each. Got the votes of all their husbands, and half their brothers. You can't walk half a dozen yards up the street, without encountering half a dozen green parasols.'

'Is everything ready?' said Samuel Slumkey to Mr. Perker.

'Nothing has been left undone, my dear sir. There are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you're to pat on the head, and ask the age of. Be particular about the children, my dear sir. It always has a great effect, that sort of thing.

'And perhaps if you could manage to kiss one of 'em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd. I think it would make you very popular.'

[from Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, the Eatanswill election]

Well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh? Oh the details of elections may vary a little from 1827, but the same tactics apply — get the voters stupefied, lock them in to voting for you, carry out some mindless stunts for the media. Gain power by whatever it takes. But, whatever you do, don't mention policies.

The way it worked for the conservatives (‘Liberals’ is one of the most misleading political names in history) in Australia in 2013 was very similar.

Before the election they engage endlessly in stunts for tv cameras, in fancy dress they lob into some known-to-be-friendly site, hold something mindlessly for the cameras, and repeat, yet again, one of a small set of focus-group-tested three word slogans.

The slogans relate to one or two policies that can be made to seem appealing to people stupefied by a diet of commercial television and News Ltd papers. Reducing electricity prices by dropping a price on carbon (‘axe the tax’), punishing brown-skinned desperate asylum seekers (‘stop the boats’), creating a Budget surplus (‘cut the waste’).

Just two other things they need to do. Claim that, apart from those few policies, in every other respect they and the (then) government are as one. Promise, implicitly or explicitly, that all the popular programs the government introduced in education, health, social services, environment, foreign affairs, workplace relations, and so on, will be retained. That in fact a change in government will be, with the exception of those popular slogan-based promises, almost un-noticeable. But better of course, because of their other claim — of competence, experience, professionalism, a ‘grown-up government’.

Home and hosed, with a lot of help from their media friends who promote slogans and stunts and grown-upness, and we have a brand new day.

After the election, while they will indeed aim to get rid of the carbon price and screw the refugees, it will suddenly appear that there were dozens, hundreds of policies never mentioned in the election campaign which are of extreme urgency. Beginning immediately, all climate change and renewable energy programs are slashed or marked for slashing; the Gonski school funding plan rejected; disability schemes abandoned; work place relations marked for big change; Medicare co-payments flagged; Australia Post set up for privatising; environmentally damaging projects approved; racial vilification laws removed; aged care damaged; NBN dismantled; ABC attacked and threatened; Indonesia insulted and her borders breached; Same Sex marriage challenged in the High Court; Aboriginal programs combined and cut, and so on. Commissions and Reviews are established to rewrite the national curriculum with a right wing and religious bias, and to slash all government spending, notably social services.

That is, just as in Eatanswill, the election of 2013 (like that of 1996) was marked by a total disconnect between a campaign aimed at winning power, and the subsequent use of that power. John Howard established the principle with his ‘core and non-core promises’, a distinction unmentioned before the election, and Abbott has continued with his proposition that only things he read out from a piece of paper, not things he said in an interview, carried any implication of reality.

The approach the Right has adopted is this: their ideology, in reality, is unpalatable to all except a tiny number of very rich people plus the small audiences of rabid shock jocks — that is, if they told people up front, during an election campaign, what they actually intended to do they could never win.

So they don't. They find a couple of policies that their rich supporters will like and which can be made popular to the masses with the help of that section of rich people who own media outlets. They engage in baby-kissing type stunts. They promise green parasols to those who vote for them. The media run interference by destabilising, attacking, delegitimising, the existing government. At the same time they totally cover-up the real ideology and agenda of the Opposition. With no reason not to vote for them, and with the green parasol tantalisingly in reach, sufficient votes are moved to get the conservative party into power.

At which point, rather like aliens (say the Slitheen of Dr Who) who rip away a human mask to reveal their true nature, the Liberal Party goes to work, as outlined above. Fake enquiries staffed by business mates will be set up to provide an alibi for the slashing and burning of the economy to disadvantage the poor and reward the rich. But generally, these days, with an acquiescent media and journalism for the rich, even the old ‘budget in worse shape than we thought’ lie isn't really needed. They can proceed quite confidently to do many things they never mentioned in the campaign, and the opposite of some things they did, knowing that the media will point out neither surprises nor contradictions. Oh, and it will turn out, so sorry, budget problems you understand, that the green parasols will only go to the rich who already have parasols of other colours.

But, you say, all very well, and a lot of damage can be done in the first term of office of a government. But obviously, after three, four, five years, depending, these vandals, masks long since ripped away, will have to face the voters who will be ready, surely, to vote early and vote often, in a fury, in order to wipe these conservatives from the political map? Er, no, sorry.

For several reasons it is very common for these conservative governments to be voted back in for several terms of office. First, come election time, they will have the advantages of incumbency — control (in Australia) of election timing, of public service, of ‘public information’ advertising, of spending, of media appearances. They can in fact go through the whole kissing babies/green parasols routine more effectively this time, and the media will keep voters stupefied; will fail to talk about the record of the government and its implications, and the public, if not reminded, forgets; will set the shock jocks to work damning the Opposition and praising the government.

Generally speaking all of that is enough to get even the most vicious and destructive government at least a second term, probably more. But these people, and their promoters, don't take chances — far too much money is at stake, far too many glittering prizes for political and business winners. So to make sure it is not uncommon to bring out the big guns. From time immemorial electoral success for an incumbent government can be guaranteed by the Falkland Gambit — rumours of war, border incidents, and, at times, the full monty, actual war, preferably, indeed invariably, against a weaker opponent.

And so Thatcher had her Falklands, Bush had his Iraq, John Howard had his Tampa incident, then Iraq, and so on.

Tony Abbott has already begun, astonishingly early, to irritate Indonesia with border incursions, and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, Three Star General on board. Probably no coincidence given that he has gone in much harder and earlier (than, say, John Howard) in his program to turn Australia into a neo-con paradise, starting by changing 2013 to Year 0. The only question remaining is where will he find a weaker opponent for the Falkland Gambit in 2016. Make no mistake, the billionaire backers of Tony Abbott have absolutely no intention of losing him after one term.

Oh, and also get ready in 2016 for more green parasols like Paid Parental Leave. And plenty of baby kissing by a man wearing rather odd costumes and head gear!

The thought thief

Two events occurred in January that have alarming parallels.

The Book Thief was released in cinemas across the country and Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced yet another review of the school curriculum.

The movie is based on the book by Australian author Markus Zusak. A synopsis of the story is here. While one would assume that there is some literary licence in both the book and movie, the burning of books in 1930’s Germany is fact. The ‘book burning’ was a staged event to remove ‘unGerman spirit’ from society and is discussed on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades ‘against the un-German spirit’. The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and ‘unwanted’ books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called ‘fire oaths’. In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: ‘No to decadence and moral corruption!’ Goebbels enjoined the crowd. ‘Yes to decency and morality in family and state!’

It is well documented that the Nazi Party was very successful in modifying the mindset of the German population in the lead up to World War 2. Communication in the ‘teen years of the 21st century is considerably better than the 1930’s with the internet and faster travel across the globe allowing people from different countries and cultures to meet and interact on a regular basis. It is a common occurrence for events around the world to be reported as they occur in 2014 due to the use of satellites and the internet — Goebbels' practices would need to be updated if they were attempted now.

While some countries do attempt to restrict the use of common electronic communication technologies, the results are variable. For example, North Korea severely restricts use of the internet but there is a domestic communications framework and some links to the ‘outside world’. There was considerable reporting of Dennis Rodman’s recent basketball tour of North Korea — including singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean Leader (here is a link in case you want to relive this momentous event). North Korea also thought it was a good practice to remove all public references to Kim Jong-un’s uncle who was recently executed for a crime against the state. Unfortunately, the alterations were discovered and the story reported worldwide in The Guardian.

If book burning and restriction of communications won’t work to alter the mindset of a population in 2014, what will?

Stockholm syndrome’, sometimes referred to as ‘capture bonding’, relates to a situation from which people cannot escape and may bond with their abductors or abusers and demonstrates one intriguing way that mindsets can be changed. It was first described after some bank staff were held captive in a bank vault for six days in 1973 while the criminals were negotiating with police. The bank staff identified with the criminals and refused assistance to leave the vault, as well as defending them once the stand-off had ended. In a similar fashion, you could argue that the mass displays of ‘affection’ for Kim Jong-un and similar leaders that do get reported in Australia demonstrate some level of acceptance of the status quo despite documented hardships, such as lack of food or shelter; and it could also be said of the German population of the 1930’s when it accepted the need to ‘cleanse their culture’.

Education is another way. School age people are impressionable as they rely on their ‘teachers’, both inside and outside the classroom, to guide them. Harry Chapin (a US singer/songwriter who tragically died in a car accident in the 1980’s) wrote a song about altering the mindset of school children.

In announcing the curriculum review Christopher Pyne said he wanted the national school curriculum to have a greater focus on the benefits of Western civilization.

Also, in an opinion piece written for The Australian (reported in Fairfax media outlets) Pyne wrote:

concerns have been raised about the history curriculum not recognising the legacy of Western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day.

Australia’s national curriculum is developed and written by an organisation called ACARA (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority). The body is funded by government and is also responsible for the national annual NAPLAN testing and ‘My School’ website. Professor Barry McGaw AO is Chair of the ACARA Board, Mr Tony Mackay is the Deputy Chair, and it has 11 other members, representing the Australian Government and all education systems (independent, government and Catholic) across states and territories.

Yet Christopher Pyne, an MP since 1993 — he was 25 at the time — and prior to that a ‘practicing solicitor … and senior member of the Liberal Party’ tells us that ‘ACARA is ‘not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education'. Pyne obviously thinks he knows better than an eminent panel of educational professionals.

Christopher Pyne’s announced review of the Australian national curriculum will be headed by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. Donnelly was Chief of Staff in 2004 for Kevin Andrews (of ‘Workchoices’ and recently ‘the $200 for marriage counselling’ fame). They each come to the review with strong pre-existing views on what should be done.

Donnelly has stated:

In recent years several education groups have sought to introduce gay, lesbian and transgender studies in the classroom and to convince schoolchildren that such practices, along with being heterosexual, are simply lifestyle choices open to all.
Multiculturalism is based on the mistaken belief that all cultures are of equal worth and that it is unfair to discriminate and argue that some practices are wrong.

Perhaps of more concern is Donnelly’s work in designing a school program to discuss peer pressure and decision making funded by Phillip Morris — the manufacturers of a number of cigarette brands. Donnelly is also on the record as saying that Australian education has become too secular, and the Federation's Judeo-Christian heritage should be better reflected in the curriculum.

Wiltshire has described the current educational funding system as a failure and suggested in 2010 that the independent politicians holding the balance of power should support the Coalition.

Pyne acknowledges that not everyone will be pleased with his choice of who will review the curriculum, but insists it will be ‘objective and fair’.

‘It's not possible to appoint anybody to review the national curriculum who doesn't have a view on education,’ Mr Pyne said.

‘The important point is to appoint people who are going to bring an intelligent and considered approach to the review, and both Kevin and Ken have a long history and experience in education.’

Various state education ministers, teaching unions, other political parties, as well as at least one state’s Parents & Citizens association, have rubbished this claim. The former Tasmanian Education Minister (a member of the Greens) stated: 'The Abbott government’s overhaul of the national curriculum appears to be a ‘brainwashing and propaganda mission'. 
It is said that the sum total of human knowledge increased exponentially in the 20th century, and continues to do so. As evidence, your car, provided it is not an ‘old banger’, has more computing power than NASA relied on to get Apollo 11 to the moon.

In 2008 all Australian education ministers agreed to the ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’. It commits to supporting ‘all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’. This document provides the principles and scope for the development of the Australian Curriculum. Many educational institutions promote and pride themselves on producing ‘successful lifetime learners’ as a result. The reality, with human knowledge increasing at an exponential rate (as the comparison between Apollo 11 and the modern car demonstrates), is that no one person can ‘know everything’. Or as Michael Legrand said: ‘The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.’

Book burning and the imposition of restrictions on the use of online material doesn’t work. If books are removed from circulation, the book is either available for sale from another jurisdiction or can be accessed online. Australians apparently excel in the breach of copyright laws through downloading entertainment from the internet: it stands to reason that if people are being encouraged to become ‘successful learners’ and ‘active and informed citizens’, as planned by Australia’s education ministers in 2008, they will be skilled in the tools and knowledge necessary to discover for themselves information that they are interested in or need to know. A part of this process will be the ability to determine if the information is reliable.

So how does a government develop a compliant citizenship that believes the myth of the superiority of ‘western civilisation’ or the ‘evil’ of alternative lifestyle choices? It withholds teaching of the ability to discover and assess information that is relevant to the individual while the individual is impressionable. The Jesuit premise of ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ has been tested by the 7 Up English television series since 1964 and, admittedly from a small sample, seems to have some basis of truth. (Australia’s current prime minister received a Jesuit education.)

While the concept of reminding our school students of Australian historical events rather than the date Columbus ‘discovered’ America has merit, should we be concerned about the deliberate choice of two conservative ‘experts’ to conduct a review of the educational system? Of course we should! While Pyne, Donnelly and Wiltshire are entitled to their opinions, where are the differing opinions that would promote balance and integrity in this proposed review?

Why the urgency to replace portions of a national curriculum that is so new parts of it have not yet been implemented?

How do we ensure that our children have the ability to think critically rather than just absorb (sometimes useless) information as was done in the past?

How do we justify to our children that a government minister with a clearly ideological agenda sidelines the body set up to manage a national curriculum?

What do you think?

Do you not remember the Twentieth Century?

Dear Mr Abbott,

You promised to take us back to the halcyon days of your Liberal Prime Ministerial predecessor John Howard and, like him, hoped to put sport rather than politics back on the front pages. I fear, however, your time machine has overshot the mark and we are heading rapidly towards the 1800s.

Do you not remember the Twentieth Century?

First: On 15 September 2013 you proudly announced your new Cabinet — with one woman!

Do you not recall Australia gave women the vote in federal elections in 1902 after campaigning by Australian suffragettes such as Vida Goldstein, Mary Lee, Henrietta Dugdale and Rose Scott? If not those names, you must remember Edith Cowan who went on to become the first female elected to any Australian parliament.

Women, however, did not get the vote quite so easily in the United Kingdom. Do you not recall Mrs Pankhurst and the British suffragettes who, from 1908, had to resort to militant tactics to achieve the vote?

Do you not remember Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and the ‘women’s lib’ movement (or second wave of feminism) of the 1960s and 1970s; the creation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby early in 1972; or the equal pay case of 1969; or women being allowed to drink in public bars and breaking down other social barriers?

Do you not remember that women have already fought much of this battle? Perhaps not, for they still have to fight to get into your Cabinet.

Second: During the 2013 election campaign you treated Indonesia like a colony, saying what Australia would do to protect its sovereignty and its borders from the evils of people smuggling without first asking Indonesia about your approaches that encroached on its sovereignty.

When in Opposition you attacked human rights in Malaysia and after you were elected were forced to apologise.

Did you not remember that south-east Asia was decolonised after WWII, that Indonesia first declared independence on 17 August 1945 but the Dutch tried to return? Do you not recall how from March 1946 Australia supported Indonesia’s independence and played a significant role in having the United Nations involved in negotiating an agreement leading to the Dutch withdrawal in 1949? Perhaps you would prefer not to, for that was a Labor government.

Did you not recall that Malaysia became completely independent from the UK in 1957 after a few years as a self-governing protectorate; that Australia sent military personnel to support Malaysia during ‘the emergency’ in the 1950s?

Why did you think that you could speak about our Asian neighbours in the way you did? Was it simply that you did not remember the Twentieth Century?

Third: You and your Ministers have demonised refugees arriving by boat, now making it official policy that they be referred to as ‘illegal arrivals’, despite Australia being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Admittedly we did sign it during the Twentieth Century, which may make it somewhat difficult for you to recall.

Do you not remember that we are a nation of migrants and refugees? From what I can find out, you may have arrived as a ‘£10 Pom’. Was your family seeking a better life when they left England behind? What is it that the boat people say — oh, yes, they are looking for a better life? It does have an air of familiarity that you should recall. Or in overlooking the Twentieth Century have you also forgotten your own arrival?

Have you forgotten that people escaping war-torn Europe after World War II were welcomed — about 171,000 arrived between 1947 and 1954 under the migration program operating at the time. In fact, in those years the total net overseas migration was about 680,000. So we not only sponsored migrants, we welcomed four times as many.

One of your Liberal predecessors, Malcolm Fraser, supported the Vietnamese boat people who came to Australia in the mid-1970s. He sent migration officials to the refugee camps to speed the processing of claims and, you may be surprised to learn, that kept down the number arriving by boat — 2,059 boat arrivals between 1976 and 1981 compared to total net migration of 442,000, including about 56,000 Vietnamese who applied as refugees. Not a bad plan in my opinion.

Perhaps it is something you could consider. But then again, I imagine you don’t like to recall that part of the Twentieth Century because Fraser resigned from your Party when he saw how refugees were being treated.

Fourth: You have hidden from and, indeed, run away from interviews and gagged your Ministers.

Do you not remember that, after an initial decision in 1992, the High Court confirmed in 1997 an ‘implied right’ of constitutional freedom of political communication?

… ss 7 and 24 and the related sections of the Constitution necessarily protect that freedom of communication between the people concerning political or government matters which enables the people to exercise a free and informed choice as electors …

The High Court created a nexus between political communication and federal voting choices. This right of political communication is not restricted to election periods but can include any political communication between elections that may influence voting.

As electors we need to be informed what each party stands for, to know what the Australian Government is doing. There are also political communications with the Government to express our views, to try to change a policy or have new policies considered. How can we have political communication with you if you don’t even tell us what you are doing? We are not informed by your Government’s silence!

I can take you back to something you should remember because it occurred before the Twentieth Century.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804:

… man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear investigation of their actions.

A free press is considered a cornerstone of democracy (leaving aside for now discussion of the Murdoch press) by providing information to the people and creating an informed electorate. If you persist with keeping information from the people, we will be left to assume you ‘fear investigation of [your] actions’ or are hiding something from us — perhaps you already are!

Fifth: You have re-introduced ‘flexible workplace relations’ into the administrative orders for the Department of Employment, although in searching your pre-election policies I can find no reference to it. Is this double-speak for more of WorkChoices or at least individual bargaining between employer and employee? You are obviously aware, being a Rhodes scholar, that in that relationship the employer holds all the power — it can be a very one-sided negotiation.

Do you not recall what Justice Higgins said in the ‘Harvester case’ in November 1907:

The provision of fair and reasonable remuneration is obviously designed for the benefit of the employees in the industry; and it must be meant to secure to them something which they cannot get by the ordinary system of individual bargaining.

That is my emphasis to Justice Higgins’ words but, yes, back in those times individual bargaining was the norm. Even then, however, it was seen not to work well for the employee. But I suppose that is another part of the Twentieth Century you have overlooked in your hurry to take us back in time.

Do you not recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911? One hundred and forty six workers — mostly women — died, leading to changes in factory conditions and safety in the US.

Here in Australia, do you not remember the Mt Kembla colliery disaster in the Illawarra in NSW in July 1902 when 96 workers, men and boys, were killed, or the collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne in 1970, killing 35 construction workers and seriously injuring 17?

Do you not recall that it was the workers represented by their unions who fought for workplace safety for decades, yet still over 100 workers die at their work every year in Australia and over 100,000 serious worker’s compensation claims are made. In fact, 212 died in 2012 and 185 in 2013.

How can an employee demand a safe workplace through individual bargaining? Would you allow, in the name of flexibility and reducing regulation, lesser health and safety standards for businesses? Would you take us back to those times when the bosses decided what was ‘safe’? How many more lives will be lost if you allow that?

Sixth: You have promised $70 million to encourage 1,500 existing public schools to become independent. And you launched your education policy at a fundamentalist Christian school in Sydney’s western suburbs. You said you did not agree with its views on homosexuality and respectfully disagreed with a number of other pronouncements in its Statement of Faith — but not all of them? Perhaps you do agree with some because, after all, they are (or at least appear to me) more akin to Christian views of the 1800s.

Do you not recall Australia’s long history of a free secular education at the primary and secondary levels? New South Wales has been doing it since late in the 1800s (so perhaps that should be within your ken) and in 1912 Queensland began creating high schools for all when it worked out it was cheaper than their previous model of ‘grammar schools’.

Do you want to take us back to the mid-1800s when the Catholic and Protestant churches provided the schooling and there was competition between them to gain pupils?

Just as an example of those times, a Dr Braim JP wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne in 1849 complaining about a Jesuit priest in his local area (and I understand, you do know something about the Jesuits):

He is to be found in every house, where he has a chance of effecting an entrance, and is very active in trying to persuade parents to prefer his school to ours for the education of their children.*

*You can find this quote in the section ‘Orphan girls’ near the end of a very long letter on the Bishop’s travels through his Diocese.

Do you not remember that the Twentieth Century placed a high priority on education and that government schools made it accessible to all?

Your Minister for Education floated the idea of reintroducing ‘caps’ on university places. You did contradict him and said it would not happen but, given your approach to promises (only what is written; only what we do, not what we said we would do — ring any bells?) I’m not sure I can believe you. It smells to me of re-creating an elite and making sure the rest of us know our place.

Last, at least for now: You said in your book Battlelines that conservatism prefers facts to theory; practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what’s in the mind’s eye.

Do you not recall George Bernard Shaw’s words, famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in 1968:

Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not?

In your world, things would change ever so slowly. It is the dreamers who drive progress. Even you should understand that it is also the dreamers who drive capitalism.

Do you not remember it was Henry Ford who dreamed of making cars affordable for ordinary people and from 1908 made that dream real? Or in the 1980s, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who had a similar dream of making computing available to all? If you only believe in what already works, your much loved capitalism would grind to a halt!

I will finish there but only because I have better things to do with my time and no inclination to continue this list: it could take me weeks.

You may be a conservative but you seem to be ignoring the past, ignoring what has already been done and already shown to work. You seem to have forgotten most of the Twentieth Century in your rush to take us back in time.

Perhaps your vision is of a late Victorian patriarchal upper middle-class family following correct etiquette and manners, with the elite paternalistically watching over the rest of us. It may reduce our cost of living if we no longer need televisions, computers or cars; you will not need to spend billions on motorways but perhaps more on trams — and horses! We may, however, need to use more coal and timber and, in the twenty-first century, other nations may not thank us for that.

I am sorry to remind you, but those times are gone. The Twentieth Century did happen!

Yours faithfully

Ken Wolff

PS: If I have some of my details wrong, I apologise, but at least I can recall the Twentieth Century.

What can you add to my letter?

What else has Abbott forgotten from the Twentieth Century?

What do you think?

Who killed Cock Robin?

I read that opening stanza of the old rhyme as a metaphor of the continued and repeatedly frustrated human progress toward social advancement. It is the most disappointing certainty that as soon as the human collective gets its act together and starts to achieve really useful advances in all things supportive and advantageous to the promotion of the human condition, along come those who set it all back a generation or two, or worse. The person who first wrote the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden must have felt the same way. Take away the biblical language and I think it could go like this:

Here we have two people, a young man and a young woman, attractive and attracted to each other, living in the best of any world, a veritable Garden of Eden: no worries, all the food they can want, all the time in the world; nothing to do but eat, drink and make love; and what to they do but screw it all up! I tell you, it's a mug's game!

So let's forget about the many, many thousands of like-managed scenarios throughout history where exactly the same action has been repeated ad-nauseam with exactly the same result. Cut to the recent election where a majority of our own society, our own people, voted in just such a destroyer of many good policies even against their own interests. No-one can deny that Gonski was for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens; no-one can deny the NBN was for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens; no-one can deny that action on climate change in a coordinated policy with the rest of the world was for the benefit of a vast majority of citizens. So why do we always screw it up? What is this inherent 'evil' that, like some incubus, sitting, waiting for the favourable moment, then strikes to undo and demolish any or all good works that have taken years to put in place?

Who killed Cock Robin?
‘I’ said the Sparrow, ‘with my little bow and arrow’

Sadly, dear friends, it is the collective ‘We’, ‘We the people’ who kill the ideas that enhance a society. Take the NBN for instance. Under Malcolm Turnbull, who just a couple of years ago we would have considered a moderate liberal, a reasonable man, we see the total destruction of any meaningful future for a high-speed broadband network for a majority of Australians. Who would have thought when voting in such a person as the current minister, himself a self- and publicly proclaimed citizen loyal to the republican cause and the nation, he would descend to such a level as to destroy the best system so as to build an inferior system more favourable to a foreign national citizen and corporation — a corporation whose former highest executives, at this very moment, are before the Old Bailey on charges of grave criminal concern. Who would have thought this ‘honourable man’, this ‘everyman’, would cheerfully work with such players to destroy infrastructure put in place for the benefit of the nation?

‘...with my little bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.’

Of course, this methodical destruction of government institutions is all to serve the ideology of economic rationalism, a crude, barbaric system that favours individual speculation over government stimulus and investment; that favours corporate structures over what is spoken of in the economic rationalist circles as ‘socialist intervention’ by government. So we now weirdly have a free enterprise government that scorns public sentiment and investment but was voted in on a media-manipulated social platform of ‘all-inclusive democracy’. Even more strangely, it is now withdrawing what it sees as democratic-state social obligations toward the citizen body in favour of corporate entrepreneurial speculation that in itself is, in theory, a body wholly and completely founded on an all inclusive social-democratic principle of multi-shareholder citizens, valued employee citizens, serviced customer citizens and corporate responsibility ethics. If that doesn't sound like a humble all-for-one/one-for-all socialist principle, then nothing is!

When Margaret Thatcher said, ‘There is no such thing as society...’ when talking to Woman’s Own magazine, a magazine that delivered news and views to a broad English society, it had to be one of the most fatuous statements ever made! She might as well have said: ‘There is no such thing as sunshine: there are only beams of light’. Her comment reflects the contradictions in the perceptions of the right-wing mind, as in a society where the entire corporate success story is totally reliant on mutual cooperation between the executive, middle-management, shop-floor production and sales and distribution; and that is only sustainable over the long-term by employing fair-wage workers within a stable society. Surely a marvellous example of mutually beneficial socialist democracy at work! So what those in the right-wing think-tanks and those in the current government have not realised, even in their most lucid moments, is that all their cynical dismantling is doing is putting themselves out of perhaps the only job they are capable of, replacing themselves with corporate socialism. Murdoch/Rinehart/Forrest et al must be laughing at those pollies all the way to their ‘comrade investor’ shareholder cooperatives!

The contradictions of the corporate mind are evident in the ‘confected’ conflict between corporations and labour and that conflict must be addressed. It must be addressed by those two players as they are the crux of power in a modern democracy. The politicians are now just the bull-horn mouthpieces of these centres of power. While the Labour unions may seem decimated at the moment, they are still the ‘eye of the storm’ in their capacity to organise and negotiate outcomes. The capacity to recruit is there, as is a future recruitment pool — labour is labour is labour! Ever since the collapse of aristocratic control of parliament, the corporate middle classes have exerted their power on parliament and democracy. Given a full head of steam, we have seen them rise on the wings of fascism to seek total dominance over all forms of wages and labour. It is in their DNA to try and dominate. It is a necessity of the ‘bottom line’ profit margin to skim and skin, always looking for the ‘cheap-labour’ demographic and then to capitalise, coerce and govern through it.

But back to the rhyme …

Who caught his blood?
‘I’ said the fish ‘with my little dish’

What do the politicians supporting these people think will be the end result of their destructive machinations? Do they think the citizen body will respect them?

‘The Mateship’ from Keating; The Musical

Do they think the corporate body will even consider them as useful after they have done the dirty work? Do they think their lot in life will be a peaceful retirement after they have reduced the living standard of many of those fellow citizens around them? They have to go to the shops. They will want to go to the beach, to the hotel or restaurant. They will be noticed, they will be pointed out. Will they demand some sort of security to accompany them every time? If we consult The Discourse of Titus Livius by Niccolò Machiavelli, we will read where he recommends, ‘To deal judgement on a person of power, first remove him from his position of power and then deal with him at your leisure.’ Such will be the reward of those who spite and cruel the citizen body. There are few examples in history where vengeful memory has not brought some sort of rough-justice to such perpetrators of injury.

Who'll toll the bell?
‘I’ said the Bullfinch ‘cause I can pull, I'll toll the bell.’

There is an inherent truth in the line, ‘No man is an island unto himself ’. What we do unto one, we do unto all and only a child or the fool will delude themselves that they can get away with a secret deception. We of aged years know from rich experience that there are no secrets; there is no devious act nor kindness that is not noted and reciprocated. There is a hunger in the honest soul for justice. There is a hunger in the virtuous soul for kindness. There is a hunger in the community soul for equality in labour and reward. Those who would deny or willingly destroy such ambition in the spirit of a nation, history notes, will be culled from the citizen body before they infect the entire life-blood of a nation. History shows us there are two methods this can be done. One is the taking up of arms — an ugly result! The other is a better justice, a more resounding justice: to vote the bullies out in no uncertain terms at the ballot box. That is the greater justice, for that tells them to their face, ‘You are not wanted in this House’.

Who killed Cock Robin? 'I' said the sparrow 'with my little bow and arrow'.

Who'll be the mourner?
‘I’ said the Dove.
‘I'll mourn for my love,
I'll be the mourner.’

Maintain the rage!

What do you think?

So that was … 2013

Welcome to 2014!

And we welcome you to your next ‘open thread’, which will run until the 2nd February, when our conversation starters, and Casablanca’s Cache, will return.

It seems to be traditional at this time of the year to reflect on what has been, and to look forward to what is to happen.

To be fair, 2013 wasn’t the greatest of years.

They say the only constant is change. We leave 2013 with our third Prime Minister for the year and the election of a Federal Government of a different political persuasion to the one we started with. After the event, it seems that the newly elected Government’s politicians proposed to honour their promises more in the breach than the observance. If Parliament House had a ‘service desk’, it would be doing a roaring trade in exchanging votes this holiday season – if the polls can be believed.

Around the world, Barack Obama commenced his second term in January 2013 before walking into a ‘Government shutdown’ over Obamacare. Late in the year the world lost Nelson Mandela – one of the greatest identities of our era. (As an aside, Mandela was still on the US Government’s ‘terrorism watch list’ in 2008 and had to apply for special permission to enter the USA – yet US Presidents of the era still attended his funeral.)

The media landscape also changed in Australia during the year with the commencement of an Australian version of The Guardian. According to an online question and answer session with its editor during November, they are ahead of their expectations of success. The Daily Mail will join them by launching an Australian website in 2014. Various News and Fairfax publications erected paywalls during 2013 and seemingly aren’t commenting on the success of the ventures. NewsCorp is still ‘out to get’ the ABC – especially since the ABC and The Guardian teamed up to break the recent story regarding Australia spying on our neighbours.

The Political Sword is also constantly changing. You’ll find details of the level of change that occurred on this site during 2013 in the previous post. So far the response to the changes has been overwhelmingly positive, and the TPS Team are extremely grateful for your continuing support.

If you would like to write a piece in 2014 as a conversation starter for TPS, we’d love to hear from you. TPS is always looking for new voices, whether you’ve ever written a blog post before, or not. Send us an outline, or a rough draft, or a complete piece: we will be happy to work with you to bring your ideas to fruition.

The TPS Team is also looking for some more regular readers and/or commenters to join the team that now ‘manages’ TPS. Many hands make light work for all of us – and most of the present 2013 team have ‘day jobs’.

As you’re probably aware, all pieces submitted to TPS are reviewed. One way to join the TPS Team, but take on an easy task that doesn’t take a lot of time, and that doesn’t have to happen often, is to offer to review – that is, become a TPS reviewer. Reviewing is a bit like getting to comment, but before we actually publish a piece. (Needless to say, your comments ‘below the line’ are always welcome!)

We are also looking for one or two additional people who might have had editing experience and who might have time to edit a piece for TPS every now and again.

If you have any interest in writing for TPS or helping out as a reviewer or editor, do email us.

As we are in the middle of a period where cricket, surf reports and families seem to be more important than politics, rather than analyse what politicians said versus what they did – the TPS Team is interested in how you see 2014 panning out.

Will you have a great New Year’s resolution story (giving up smoking, catching the bus to work, travelling Australia)?

Do you think it will be a better year for the world, country or you personally?

Do you think Australian politicians will develop an understanding of the common meaning of the word ‘promise’?

The Political Sword Team wishes all our contributors and readers a wonderful year of discussion and of sharing various points of view.

As always, we look forward to you telling us what you think.

‘Happy Summertime’ from the TPS Team!

From this week The Political Sword goes into recess for the summer period until the 2nd February 2014.

Well, its authors, and Casablanca’s Cache, will have a break, but all of you who love to comment and share links and thoughts and fun on TPS don’t have to do the same.

Comments on this page will stay open until the 1st January 2014. Then, the TPS Team will put up a new page, where comments through January can stay open until the first discussion starter by an author for 2014 goes up on the 2nd February.

This past year, 2013, has been a big one for The Political Sword. It’s not only the change of government; it’s that two stalwart Swordsters, Ad Astra and Lyn Linking, retired from their daily and full-time commitment to this long-term blog. We mourned their loss, and wondered about life with no TPS.

But little by little, The Political Sword found itself renewed and revived as a group effort, with a team that now chuffs along behind the scenes, and with regular team authors Ken Wolff and 2353 mixing it up with guest bloggers. This year we’ve been lucky to have well-known writers Barry Tucker and David Horton guesting, as well as Ad Astra on a guest-spot return, and jaycee, long-time commenter, trying his hand at a discussion starter for the first time.

We thought you might like to know who your TPS Team in these last three months of 2013 has been. We were:

  • Bacchus, who provides all general tech support, as well as email and TPS Twitter account support;
  • Casablanca, who puts together the ever-extraordinary ‘Casablanca’s Cache’;
  • Catching Up: email support and comment moderating;
  • Janet (j4gypsy): editing and Twitter support;
  • Ken Wolff: regular authoring and reviewing, as well as editing support;
  • Pappinbarra Fox: regular reviewing support;
  • Talk Turkey: reviewing and comment moderating support;
  • 2353: regular authoring and reviewing as well as online/html coding support;
  • Ad Astra who, as well as mentoring us all through the process of becoming a team, has acted at different times as editor as well as author, and regular TPS site technical support.
We also thought we could all end the year with some visual moments – anything from a cartoon to YouTube grabs -- that capture any of the lowlights or highlights of the 2013 political year, and in whatever seasons TPS contributors might have celebrated or will celebrate this year.

We invite you to add your visual moment (or two) of the year in a comment below, and tell us why you chose it.

Here’s one, with a ‘why’, to start the ball rolling.

2353 picked this, because, he says:

While this clip is really a commercial it demonstrates that some corporations do have a sense of community and of the greater good. Community and the greater good are two things we all should remember in our own dealings and insist on in others during 2014. From my family to yours: we hope 2014 is everything you want it to be and full of peace and prosperity. Take care over the festive season and throughout the year.

We wish you, from us all, a happy and safe summer holiday season.

The myth of political sameness

Cock your ear at your local watering hole, listen to the boys as they clasp a frosted schooner of VB, and you’re bound to hear: ‘They’re all the same these pollies. Ya just can’t trust em’. Of course they are right to some extent. The deception and deviousness we see day after day from our politicians has earned them that condemnation. On the other side of the coin, by and large politicians enter public life to make a difference, to do good things, to make life better for their electorates, indeed the whole nation. Only the Eddie Obeids of this world have self-interest as their driving force.

Similarly, political parties have good intentions and many comparable policies. It’s not surprising then that many voters perceive politicians and parties as ‘all the same’.

This notion of sameness needs debunking, lest too many entitled to cast a vote swallow the myth that the ‘sameness’ of the parties absolves them from making a critical decision about who is best equipped to lead the nation, who has the best policy agenda, who has the most acceptable ideology, who has the most suitable approach to policy development, who can take us to a better future.

Politicians and parties are not ‘all the same’.

In his book: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002), George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist, tells us how very different are conservatives from progressives, and how the major differences in their mindset affects their approach to politics. Because he studied US politics, he uses the term ‘liberal’ to describe ‘progressives’ (in the US, Democrats; in this country Labor and perhaps the Greens), and ‘conservative’ to describe conservatives (in the US, Republicans or their extreme variant, The Tea Party; in this country the Liberal National Party, the Coalition). Most of the quotes in this piece are from this book. I quote him extensively; my words could not do a better job than his.

His underlying thesis rests on a central metaphor: ‘Nation as Family’. He elaborates on this as follows:

The Nation is a Family.
The Government is a Parent.
The Citizens are the Children.

We know that the metaphor is not wholly applicable, but many people find it a comfortable one with which they can identify readily. They can accept that family dynamics and economics might be seen as applicable to the nation’s dynamics and economics, even though there are many fundamental differences. Our politicians often use this metaphor, making reference to the family budget to argue that the nation, like a family, must ‘live within its means’.

Building on the Nation as Family metaphor, Lakoff identifies two types of family based upon two distinct styles of parenting, which he assigns to conservatives and progressives respectively. When applied to the Nation as Family metaphor, they result in vastly different behaviours.

The two parenting styles are:

The Strict Father model, and
The Nurturant Parent model.

At the center of the conservative worldview is a Strict Father model; the liberal (progressive) worldview centres on a very different ideal for family life, the Nurturant Parent model, which encompasses both parents.

Lakoff asserts that the Strict Father model is a metaphorical version of an economic idea. He explains:

It is based on a folk version of Adam Smith’s economics: If each person seeks to maximize his own wealth, then, by an invisible hand, the wealth of all will be maximized. Applying the common metaphor that Well-Being Is Wealth to this folk version of free-market economics, we get: If each person tries to maximize his own well-being (or self-interest), the well-being of all will be maximized. Thus, seeking one’s own self-interest is actually a positive, moral act, one that contributes to the well-being of all.

Lakoff goes on to cite some words and phrases used over and over in conservative discourse, words that reflect the Strict Father model:

Character, virtue, discipline, tough it out, get tough, tough love, strong, self-reliance, individual responsibility, backbone, standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard work, enterprise, property rights, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference, meddling, punishment, human nature, traditional, common sense, dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay, rot, degenerate, deviant, lifestyle.

How many times have you heard Coalition members use these words, particularly those who have responsibility for the economy: Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann? Countless times!

Lakoff continues:

Liberals [progressives], in their speeches and writings, choose different topics, different words, and different modes of inference than conservatives. Liberals talk about: social forces, social responsibility, free expression, human rights, equal rights, concern, care, help, health, safety, nutrition, basic human dignity, oppression, diversity, deprivation, alienation, big corporations, corporate welfare, ecology, ecosystem, biodiversity, pollution, and so on. Conservatives tend not to dwell on these topics, or to use these words as part of their normal political discourse.

How often have you heard Labor members and Greens using these words? Over and again!

Lakoff summarises:

The conservative/liberal [progressive] division is ultimately a division between strictness and nurturance as ideals at all levels—from the family to morality to religion and, ultimately, to politics. It is a division at the center of our democracy and our public lives, and yet there is no overt discussion of it in public discourse.

He continues:

Yet it is vitally important that we do so if Americans are to understand, and come to grips with, the deepest fundamental division in our country, one that transcends and lies behind all the individual issues: the role of government, social programs, taxation, education, the environment, energy, gun control, abortion, the death penalty, and so on. These are ultimately not different issues, but manifestations of a single issue: strictness versus nurturance.

In Australia, an identical and just as fundamental division exists between the Coalition, the conservatives, and Labor and the Greens, the progressives. This division results in the striking differences in attitude, behaviour, rhetoric, policy, and indeed morality, which day after day define our own conservatives and our own progressives. It explains so much of the contrast we see.

Lakoff summarises the relationship between morality and politics as follows:

The Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models of the family induce…two moral systems...

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common, unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation as Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

According to Lakoff, conservatives cannot understand the thinking of progressives, nor can progressives understand conservatives. Conventional logic does not help; it is only when the two methods of parenting are used as explanatory models that understanding comes into view with a startling flash of insight.

To assist understanding, Lakoff compares conservative and liberal (progressive) moral systems:

Conservative categories of moral action:

1. Promoting Strict Father morality in general.
2. Promoting self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance.
3. Upholding the Morality of Reward and Punishment.
a. Preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people.
b. Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority.
c. Ensuring punishment for lack of self-discipline.
4. Protecting moral people from external evils.
5. Upholding the Moral Order.

Liberal categories of moral action:

1. Empathetic behaviour, and promoting fairness.
2. Helping those who cannot help themselves.
3. Protecting those who cannot protect themselves.
4. Promoting fulfillment in life.
5. Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above.

He clarifies these concepts as follows:

In the conservative moral worldview, the model citizens are those who best fit all the conservative categories for moral action. They are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order. Those who best fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who are against affirmative action. They are the model citizens. They are the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear. They deserve to be rewarded and respected.

These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology. They have succeeded through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned. Through their success and wealth they create jobs, which they “give” to other citizens. Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they become philanthropists who “give” jobs to others and thereby “create wealth” for others [trickle down economics]. Part of the myth is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and have made it on their own. The American Dream is that any honest, self-disciplined, hard-working person can do the same. These model citizens are seen by conservatives as the Ideal Americans in the American Dream.

We can now see clearly why liberal [progressive] arguments for social programs can make no sense at all to conservatives, whether they are arguments on the basis of compassion, fairness, wise investment, financial responsibility, or outright self-interest. The issue for conservatives is a moral issue touching the very heart of conservative morality, a morality where a liberal’s compassion and fairness are neither compassionate nor fair. Even financial arguments won’t carry the day. The issue isn’t about money; it’s about morality.

What we have here are major differences in moral worldview. They are not just differences of opinion about effective public administration. The differences are not about efficiency, or practicality, or economics, and they cannot be settled by rational argument about effective administration. They are ethical opinions about what makes good people and a good nation.

Lakoff illustrates his thesis with an example from America that has application in this country:

Take a simple example: college loans. The federal government has had a program to provide low-interest loans to college students. The students don’t have to start paying off the loans while they are still in college and the loans are interest-free during the college years [similar to our HECS - HELP loan program].

The liberal rationale for the program is this: College is expensive and a great many poor-to-middle-class students cannot afford it. This loan program allows a great many students to go to college who otherwise wouldn’t. Going to college allows one to get a better job at a higher salary afterward and to be paid more during one’s entire life. This benefits not only the student but also the government, since the student will be paying more taxes over his lifetime because of his better job. From the liberal [progressive] moral perspective, this is a highly moral program. It helps those who cannot help themselves. It promotes fulfillment in life in two ways, since education is fulfilling in itself and it permits people to get more fulfilling jobs. It strengthens the nation, since it produces a better-educated citizenry and ultimately brings in more tax money; and it is empathetic behavior making access to college more fairly distributed.

But through conservative spectacles, this is an immoral program. Since students depend on the loans, the program supports dependence on the government rather than self-reliance. Since not everyone has access to such loans, the program introduces competitive unfairness, thus interfering with the free market in loans and hence with the fair pursuit of self-interest. Since the program takes money earned by one group and, through taxation, gives it to another group, it is unfair and penalizes the pursuit of self-interest by taking money from someone who has earned it and giving it to someone who hasn’t.

Lakoff explains:

I started with college loans because it is not as heated an issue as abortion or welfare or the death penalty or gun control. Yet it is a nitty-gritty issue, because it affects a lot of people very directly. To a liberal, it is obviously the right thing to do. And to a conservative, it is obviously the wrong thing to do.

I trust that these extensive quotes from Lakoff’s book paint clearly the differences that he postulates exist between the mindset and thinking of conservatives and progressives.

Although Lakoff’s description of the extremes of conservative and progressive thinking might lead one to conclude that there is a spectrum along which this thinking is distributed, somewhat after the fashion of a bell-shaped curve, which could throw up ‘moderate’ or ‘middle of the road’ conservatives and progressives, Lakoff maintains that there are no such politicians. He acknowledges that sometimes conservatives may have a progressive view on some issues, and progressives may have a conservative view on other issues, but insists that there are no moderates. A conservative is a conservative, and a progressive is a progressive.

Lakoff spells out in detail just how conservatives and progressives see the world:

It should now be clear why, from the conservative world-view, the rich should be seen as “the best people”. They are the model citizens, those who, through self-discipline and hard work, have achieved the American Dream. They have earned what they have and deserve to keep it. Because they are the best people – people whose investments create jobs and wealth for others – they should be rewarded. Taking money away is conceptualized as harm, financial harm; that is the metaphorical basis of seeing taxation as punishment. When the rich are taxed more than others for making a lot more money, they are, according to conservatives, being punished for being model citizens, for doing what, according to the American Dream, they are supposed to do. Taxation of the rich is, to conservatives, punishment for doing what is right and succeeding at it. It is a violation of the Morality of Reward and Punishment. In the conservative worldview, the rich have earned their money and, according to the Morality of Reward and Punishment, deserve to keep it. Taxation – the forcible taking of their money from them against their will – is seen as unfair and immoral, a kind of theft. That makes the federal government a thief. Hence, a common conservative attitude toward the government: You can’t trust it, since, like a thief, it’s always trying to find ways to take your money.

Liberals, of course, see taxation through very different lenses. In Nurturant Parent morality, the wellbeing of all children matters equally. Those children who need less care, the mature and healthy children, simply have a duty to help care for those who need more, say, younger or infirm children. The duty is a matter of moral accounting. They have received nurturance from their parents and owe it to the other children if it is needed. In the Nation as Family metaphor, citizens who have more have a duty to help out those who have much less. Progressive taxation is a form of meeting this duty. Rich conservatives who are trying to get out of paying taxes are seen as selfish and mean-spirited. The nation has helped provide for them and it is their turn to help provide for others. They owe it to the nation.

He could scarcely make it any clearer. How relevant is this exposition to the contemporary dispute about the Gonski model for school funding here!

Lakoff goes on to assert a worrying trend:

The conservative family values agenda is, at present, being set primarily by fundamentalist Christians. This is not a situation that many people are aware of.

These groups have been most explicit in developing a Strict Father approach to childrearing and have been extremely active in promoting their approach. On the whole, they are defining the conservative position for the current debate about childrearing, as well as for legislation incorporating their approach. Since the ideas in conservative Christian childrearing manuals are fully consistent with the Strict Father model of the family that lies behind conservative politics, it is not at all strange that such fundamentalist groups should be setting the national conservative agenda on family values.

In short, conservative family values, which are the basis for conservative morality and political thought, are not supported by either research in child development or the mainstream childrearing experts in the country. That is another reason why the conservative family agenda has been left to fundamentalist Christians. Since there is no significant body of mainstream experts who support the Strict Father model, conservatives can rely only on fundamentalist Christians, who have the only well thought out approach to childrearing that supports the Strict Family model.

The claims to legitimacy for the conservative family values enterprise rest with the fundamentalist Christian community, a community whose conclusions are not based on empirical research but on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. And that…is based on Strict Father morality itself. Thus, there is no independent or non-ideological basis whatever for conservative claims about family values.

Is this group of fundamentalist Christians representative of conservative attitudes about childrearing? I don’t know, but they are in charge. They are the people setting the conservative family values agenda.

We have become aware of the influence of fundamentalist Christians in The Tea Party on the recent debt ceiling debate in the US, which resulted in the closure of some government departments, and threatened the government with the prospect of defaulting on repayment of its borrowings. They pressured their less radical Republican colleagues and almost succeeded in overwhelming them.

Lakoff comments on the funding of policy think tanks:

Because of the way conservative think tanks are funded – through large general block grants and virtually guaranteed long-term funding – conservative intellectuals can work on long-term, high-level strategies that cover the whole spectrum of issues.

Liberal [progressive] think tanks and other organizations are not only out-funded four-to-one, they are also organized in a self-defeating manner. There are three general types: advocacy, policy, and monitoring the other side. The advocacy and policy organizations generally work issue-by-issue. Few are engaged in long-term, high-level thinking, partly because of the issue-by-issue orientation, partly because they are kept busy responding to the current week’s conservative assaults, and partly because they constantly have to pursue funding. The funding priorities of liberal foundations and other funders are also self-defeating. They tend to be program-oriented (issue-by-issue) and relatively short-term with no guarantee of refunding. Moreover, they tend not to give money for career development or infrastructure. And liberal organizations tend not to support their intellectuals! In short, they are doing just the opposite of what they should be doing if they are to counter the conservatives’ successes.

I’m sure these words will resonate in Labor hearts in this country, where we have seen several well-funded conservative think tanks (the IPA is a classic example) outperform the few progressive ones, set the policy agenda for the Coalition, and fashion the most effective framing of these policies. Labor has not been able to match this, has been manipulated to use the frames set by the Coalition, and thereby has repeatedly failed to get across its message.

It is heartening to see that the Centre for Policy Development, a local progressive think tank, has this year written a book: Pushing Our Luck: ideas for Australian progress, about which reviewer Ken Wolff tells us that it ‘presents a wide ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social structures if we are to maintain our “luck” into the future’.

Finally, in another Lakoff book: The Political Mind – A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to your Brain and its Politics (Penguin Books, London, 2009), he asserts that the different thinking of conservatives and progressives has a neural basis. He argues:

To change minds, you must change brains. You must make unconscious politics conscious. Because most of what our brains do is unconscious, you can’t find out how people’s brains work by just asking them. That is why neuroscience and cognitive sciences are necessary.

There is not space here to elaborate; that will have to wait for another piece.

To me, Lakoff’s thesis was a revelation. As one who applies logic to resolve puzzling matters, Lakoff showed how pointless this process is in attempting to understand how conservatives and progressives think, and why they think so differently. He also showed the pointlessness of expecting conservatives and progressives to explain why they are so different; they don’t know themselves!

Lakoff provides a plausible explanatory model. I for one believe he has tapped into a rich vein of understanding that for me explains the extraordinary differences between our own conservatives and progressives, which until I read his thesis, defied explanation. What he says makes sense. Hereafter, it will enable a depth of comprehension for me that was not previously possible.

Try keeping Lakoff’s thesis in mind as you now listen to political dialogue, no matter what the forum. You might be surprised how much more sense you are able to make of it!

What do you think?

Generational change and the ALP

In the Abbott Cone of Silence since the 2013 election, the media has actually been looking around for other things to report on. There are two issues that caught my interest recently.

The first was the reporting of a survey conducted by Monash University and funded by the Scanlon Foundation. The survey suggested that while Australians like immigration, they dislike ‘boat people’. (The Scanlon Foundation website discusses the objectives of this organisation as well as linking to the current and previous surveys.)

Unfortunately (for me), I can remember the 70s and 80s and the Vietnam War. I can also remember that there was bipartisan support for a considerable number of people displaced from South East Asia as a result of that war who became refugees in Australia. At the time, part of the discussion on why we should accept asylum seekers from South East Asia into Australian society was that Australia was partly responsible for the displacement of fellow human beings. There was a certain amount of logic to this argument as Australia was part of a multi-national force that had attempted to bomb the Vietnamese Communists into submission.

The Australian Government of the time assisted asylum seekers into the country; then, through a number of paid and volunteer groups gave assistance to the refugees until they ‘found their feet’ in Australia and started to contribute to our society. The National Archives website claims:

… the impact of the Fraser government can best be seen in its revitalised immigration program. From 1975 to 1982, some 200,000 migrants arrived from Asian countries, including nearly 56,000 Vietnamese people who applied as refugees. In addition, policies were put in place to grant entry to 2059 ‘boat people’ – refugees from Vietnam who arrived without documents or official permission after hazardous sea voyages to the northern coast of Australia. The immigration program focused on resettlement and multiculturalism. In 1978 the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs was created. Petro Georgiou, the Prime Minister’s immigration adviser, suggested in retrospect that: ‘Viewed in the longer run it was the entry of Vietnamese refugees that made Australia’s migrant intake multiracial … it was under [Fraser’s] management that Australia first confronted the real consequences of abolishing the White Australia Policy.’

Between the 1930s and now, it is estimated that Australia has become home to over 750,000 refugees. The National Archives attributes over 56,000 of that number to the eight years of the Fraser Government.

The interesting thing about this period of our history is that the Australian Prime Minister at the time – Malcolm Fraser – was a member of the Liberal Party and described at the time as extremely conservative.* In his defence, though, his predecessor was Gough Whitlam so the comparison is probably more marked than it could have been. Fraser was conservative economically; he commissioned a review of the Public Service as well as cutting expenditure and reducing services (sound familiar?). Fraser’s Government – his Treasurer was John Howard – had the Australian economy in recession in 1983 when Bob Hawke and the ALP were voted into power.

Come forward to 2013 and we have both political parties in Australia attempting to outdo each other in rhetoric demonstrating they are ‘tough’ on asylum seekers. The Political Sword has previously discussed some of the current practices in relation to asylum seekers, and we won’t go there again now. However, we can ask why there was bipartisan support for asylum seekers in the 70s and 80s and why in 2013 there is bipartisan support for what could be described as an ‘anywhere but Australia’ policy.

The second issue in the media that caught my interest was the ‘debt ceiling’ debate in the United States. While I won’t claim to know enough about the practicalities and politics of the issue, there has been considerable reporting on it. This News Limited business article ‘Tea Party candidates behind the US government shutdown’, written before the very public back down from the Republican Party that allowed the US Government to resume ‘normal service’, details some of the issues involved.

The Tea Party is a very conservative political group that has a number of ‘non-negotiable’ core beliefs. These are listed on their website and seem to be similar to some of the 75 points the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) believe are necessary in Australia. Ironically, the linked article from the IPA sheets a considerable part of the blame for Australia’s ‘failings’ to Fraser’s Government. There is a local Tea Party, too, calling itself CANdo. You might recognise some of the players in, or offering patronage to, that organisation: for example, David Flint, Hugh Morgan, Alan Jones.

That the conservative end of the Republican Party – backed by their Tea Party – is bringing to America significant personal tragedy and heartache is demonstrated by the personal story of an IRS government employee caught in the shutdown, Jenny Brown of Ogden Utah, as reported by George Packer in The New Yorker. In ‘Business as usual’, Packer notes that:

According to an estimate by Standard & Poor’s, the Tea Party’s brinkmanship cost the American economy twenty-four billion dollars—more than half a percentage point of quarterly growth. House Republicans have suffered a huge tactical defeat of their own devising, and their approval ratings are at an all-time low. President Obama and the Democrats in Congress appear strong for refusing to give in to blackmail.

But he then reflects that:

… in a larger sense the Republicans are winning, and have been for the past three years, if not the past thirty. They’re just too blinkered by fantasies of total victory to see it. The shutdown caused havoc for federal workers and the citizens they serve across the country. Parks and museums closed, new cancer patients were locked out of clinical trials, loans to small businesses and rural areas froze, time ran down on implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law, trade talks had to be postponed. All this chaos only brings the government into greater disrepute, and, as Jenny Brown’s colleagues dig their way out of the backlog, they’ll be fielding calls from many more enraged taxpayers. It would be naïve to think that intransigent Republicans don’t regard these consequences of their actions with indifference, if not outright pleasure. Ever since Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural, pronounced government to be the problem, elected Republicans have been doing everything possible to make it true.

While the Republicans may be seen to be ‘winning the argument’, it seems, however, that all is not well for the Tea Party’s role within the Republican Party – as this Bloomberg report, ‘Republican Civil War Erupts: Business Groups v. Tea Party’, explains. Harold Meyerson, in ‘A tea party purge among the GOP’ (The Washington Post) also analyses the issue.

Both articles reflect on the predominance of ‘older white Americans’ in the US Tea Party. Apparently, one of the ‘big issues’ with the US Government shutdown with older white Americans was the closure of the World War II memorial in Washington – an interesting comment on the demographics and perceptions of the Tea Party’s membership! Perhaps Gary Younge of The Guardian has the answer, in terms of this group in the US:

Central to this deep-seated sense of angst is race. In 2012, 92% of the Republican vote came from white people who, within 30 years, will no longer be in the majority.

Back in Australia, it seems that the same people that are publically backing the self-proclaimed ‘Australian Tea Party’ – CANdo – also have considerable influence in our major conservative party, the LNP, particularly in relation to its leadership.

After Kevin Rudd and the ALP were voted into office, the Parliamentary Opposition Leadership position seemed to be a revolving door – with Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull both being ‘tapped on the shoulder’. On both occasions, this occurred after they seemed to agree with a proposal from the ALP Government that wasn’t conventional – the GFC economic stimulus plan and the carbon pricing scheme, respectively. Abbott won his 2009 leadership vote by one vote and was the third Opposition Leader since the 2007 election. The LNP leadership challenges were reported at the time as being orchestrated by the LNP’s ‘power brokers’ such as Nick Minchin a (now retired) Liberal Senator from South Australia. But Phil Dobbie (a broadcaster with considerable experience) also links the influence of the Alan Jones’ Radio Show with the various changes in Liberal Party leadership during the period 2007 to 2010.

Can George Packer’s comment that the conservatives are ‘really winning the argument’ be seen as valid across the Pacific in Australia?

I believe it can be. The Scanlon/Monash survey on Social Cohesiveness suggests that in 2013 this country is ‘against’ asylum seekers – in spite of bipartisan support in the 1970s and 1980s where a resettlement policy was managed by the ruling Liberal/Country Party Government. Reflecting such findings by the Scanlon/Monash survey, the current Government used the three-word ‘Stop the boats’ mantra while in Opposition and claims that they stopped the boats in their first 50 days of Government.

The ALP seems to have recognised this trend and in these days of focus groups and marketing experts also seems to be heading to the conservative side of politics, allowing for a vacuum to be created on the progressive side of the political landscape.

While ‘aping’ your competitors may work when selling TVs, it is potentially a lesser advantage when selling ideas and strategy. The ALP is responsible for a number of great social advances in Australian history, from paid annual leave to disability care. Should the ALP, in an attempt to court a group of voters that are literally dying out, (ageing conservative men and women) continue to copy the LNP’s position on a number of issues, or should it stand its ground on its own principles?

Obama and the Democratic Party in the US seem to have decided to hold their ground – and for the moment they are successful. It seems that they have begun to fracture the conservative alliance of the Tea Party and Republican Party by standing by their principles on the debt ceiling issue and demonstrating that the Republicans are being held to ransom by an ideological rump. Since the same issue arises again early next year, the battle is not over and it will be interesting to see if the ‘Tea Party’ or ‘Business’ Republicans (see again the Bloomberg report) win the day.

As older conservative Australians die out, will the ALP survive the current generational or demographic change within Australia?

Can the ALP determine a strategy to promote the real differences between them and the LNP?

Might the ALP model itself on the US Democratic Party in order to reach out to those that are not represented by the LNP?

What do you think?

* Note: We never see Malcolm Fraser as an honoured guest at events such as Liberal Party policy launches these days despite his engineering of the fall of the Whitlam Government. He resigned from the Liberal Party in 2009, and campaigned for a Greens Candidate at the last Federal Election.

The Meaning of Treason

In the closing days of the Second World War, the name ‘Lord Haw Haw’ was synonymous with the cry: ‘traitor!’ In those days a traitor was seen as a clear-cut thing. In The Meaning of Treason (Penguin, 1965), Rebecca West identifies him as a traitor:

... by broadcasting between '... the eighteenth day of September 1939 and on other divers days thereafter, and between that day and the second day of July 1940, being then to wit, on the said several days, a person owing allegiance to our Lord the King...' It was in fact the case for the prosecution that a person obtaining a passport placed himself thereby under the protection of the crown and owed it allegiance until the passport expired.

A clear case of loyalty to the crown, His Majesty, The King.

These days, loyal allegiance is somewhat more ‘beige’. Today's democracies lean more toward public perception and cultural authority for a definition of loyalty. But to work hand in hand in a brazen manner to both bring down the democratically elected government of the day and, by obfuscation, stealth and deliberate slander to work to have elected a ‘favourite’ of the vested interests that had the intent of demolishing national infrastructure and working against the social equality of the peoples of the nation, has to equate with a definition of treason.

To my mind, there is no doubt that we, as a nation, have been betrayed. Those many ‘national interest’ policies: the NBN, Gonski, NDIS, ETS, Environmental Protection, and National Parks, that are in the national interest, and coupled with a now recognized ‘non-emergency with the budget’, are at risk, and indeed in some cases will be dismantled for no other reason than to satisfy vested or financial interests, not solely out of a twisted ideology, but out of insatiable greed.

It would be an act of treason to betray the nation’s interest by destroying national infrastructure and public policy that benefits the majority of citizens, while giving financial reward to a tiny minority of capital-invested players. That would be treason, in every sense of the word and meaning. Judas would get his thirty pieces of silver. The fact that these modern major players are set to gain billions of dollars through such acts of vandalism against the nation is their treason, in every sense of the word.

But we are told that the government was voted in by over half the population. That is correct, but we are also aware that much of the voting public is neither politically perceptive nor very interested in political outcomes, other than to effect a strange ‘payback’ for the illusion of injury that has been trumped-up by the Mainstream Media. Whatever swayed the voters it certainly was assisted by some outright lies and slanderous accusations in the MSM against the sitting government.

The political players, in collusion with big media and big business, have done the most damage, particularly the Mainstream Media. We know their names, we have railed against them here and elsewhere for their perfidious behaviour, and they continue to obfuscate and manipulate out of self-interest, financial gain, or a perceived political future too obscure for mere mortals to comprehend. Only now are we reading of the vast number and scope of the rorts perpetrated by the then Opposition, now the Government. Why was this information hidden when members of parliament, and even the Speaker of the House, were being goaded to resign and were being vilified over lesser amounts? There can be only one reason.

This Government was voted in after a campaign based on fraud and deception, one perpetrated by the Mainstream Media and its employees. Who can deny the fact that many of the Government’s so-called policies were unexamined, uncontested and unopposed by that very estate that sanctimoniously holds itself up as the Fourth Estate of democracy? Indeed, it continues to this day to support the Government’s policy agenda. Even the recent trips to Indonesia and Asia by the PM were deemed a roaring success, not because of what was achieved (there was more given away!), but because it was deemed so by the Fourth Estate! The lies were maintained; the circle is complete!

In The Meaning of Treason, Rebecca West makes some very interesting observations on how the modern media has played its part in the dissemination of propaganda:

Never before have people known the voice of one they had never seen as well as if he had been a husband or brother or a close friend; and had they foreseen such a miracle they could not have imagined that this familiar unknown would speak to them only to prophesy their death and ruin.

She speaks of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw). She continues:

He was not only alarming; he was ugly. He opened a vista into a mean life. He always spoke as if he were better fed, and better clothed than we were …

The above portrayal is an example of the malicious persuasion that manipulates a people, a people hungry for simplicity of policy, for entertainment, contentment and insulation from the harsh realities of the world on their doorstep. It is the style of propaganda of those who have in many cases helped cause those very disasters that bring trouble to our doorstep, propaganda that is trying to stop programs that could alleviate and soften such events in the future. Such people portray a meanness of spirit and ugliness of heart that opens the door to cruel intent. That is a betrayal of the trust given to the Mainstream Media, a trust that was bestowed upon those called to shine a light on duplicitous behaviour that can ruin a society, not to collude with reckless abandon in that very behaviour.

I give the last words on such a tawdry subject to Ariel Gonzales on Rebecca West's book:

The Meaning of Treason reminds us that sometimes the worst betrayal is the trading of values for the illusion of safety.

That is the meaning of treason!

Review of ‘Pushing Our Luck: ideas for Australian progress’

If you want an alternative to the Abbott future for Australia, this book is for you. It has the ideas and policy approaches with which to bombard politicians and opinion-makers.

The publisher, the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), was established in 2007, a progressive think-tank that grew out of New Matilda, providing an important counter to right-wing think-tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

This IPA article is an example of what we are up against and why this book is so important.

In its six years of operation, CPD has already influenced Labor policy on health and its members regularly attend conferences, write articles, and make appearances on The Drum on ABC News 24. A young organisation, CPD is already making its mark. The people involved and who have contributed to this book help explain why. Many of the authors, experts in their field, you will know: for example, the editor Miriam Lyons; Eva Cox on welfare; Ian McAuley on restructuring the economy; Jane Caro, well-known from the ABC’s Gruen Transfer and a strong proponent of public education, one of two authors on education; and Geoff Gallup, former WA Premier, on a national vision and strategy.

I come to this book after 30 years of policy work in Aboriginal affairs, covering issues such as education and training, economic development and ‘development approaches’ to service delivery. I understand policy, and implementing policy, and the interplay of economic and social issues as they affect everyday lives. I know and like what this book is about.

Pushing Our Luck presents a wide ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social structures if we are to maintain our ‘luck’ into the future. Its approach matches my own experience linking people and economics, not considering the two as somehow divorced.

Such a linkage was stated strongly by the OECD in 2005:

... children of poor parents have less chance of succeeding in life than children of rich parents: a widening inequality of income risks leading to a widening inequality of opportunity. Because of these factors, a failure to tackle the poverty facing millions of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, it will also weigh heavily on our capacity to sustain economic growth for years to come.

Despite that, our governments appear not to have come to grips with the concept. This book does and deserves attention; and deserves to be put under the noses of our politicians.

The ‘Introduction’ (by the editor, Miriam Lyons) asks the question why Australians feel financially insecure when economic indicators suggest Australia is at or very near the top of the league of developed countries. There is rising inequality and governments are providing fewer services, placing more risk and uncertainty back on the individual. The economy of the nation may be travelling well but many people are working longer, often in less secure employment, and not seeing the benefits of our economic success.

Returning to the old Australian concept of a fair and egalitarian society is part of the answer. Lindy Edwards pursues this in Chapter 9, ‘Welcome Home: Preventing the next culture war’. She asks for more emphasis on Australia’s democratic history: the radical path we trod in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving women the vote and allowing ordinary people, not just an elite, to be elected to parliament. She relates the story of an early member of the Australian Parliament making a speech with holes in his suit pants because it was the only suit he had. The fact that Australia had the world’s first Labo(u)r government was no accident but a result of our founders ensuring that ordinary people were drawn into the political process.

The idea that human societies are not chained to repeating history and that we can create a better world runs deep in the Australian tradition. In recent years we have lost sight of how rare that philosophy was, and still is.

She calls her approach ‘egalitarian nationalism’ and presents it as an alternative but inclusive national narrative to that of multiculturalism. It is also highly relevant to the rest of the book as such a shift in our national narrative could create greater acceptance of the alternative policy proposals.

In both the health chapter (Chapter 3, ‘Getting better: prescriptions for an ailing health system’, Jennifer Doggett) and the education chapter (Chapter 2, ‘Getting past Gonski: every child deserves a good school’, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro), the authors show the increasing divide occurring in access to services, with the well-off using private schools and private hospitals while public systems remain under-resourced.

In education both higher and lower achieving students are becoming more concentrated in separate schools. The authors support the Gonski approach to increase funding to those schools most in need but suggest neither the Coalition nor Labor is committed to taking all the steps necessary for equity and opportunity.

It is amazing that we are still discussing inequality in education. I have, from a time when we did believe in equality, Tom Roper’s 1971 book The Myth of Equality. In the subsequent 42 years there have been many changes in our education systems but Roper would recognise the same failings. We have not provided the funding necessary, nor adopted the policies that would change it. I agree that much needs to be done, perhaps even more than suggested by this chapter.

Eva Cox’s chapter on welfare (Chapter 4, ‘Putting society first: welfare for wellbeing’) argues for welfare payments that provide a reasonable income, not a minimalist safety net, and that pushing people into employment should not be the driving force behind welfare support. She refers to our current job market offering fewer secure jobs with predictable hours as a problem that our welfare system must address.

International literature refers to such work as ‘precarious’ employment and it is covered in detail in Chapter 6, ‘Taking the high road: a future that works for workers’ by Lisa Heap. Australia has an increasing number of workers who are casual, part-time, on fixed term contracts and similar forms of non-standard employment that may not offer the benefits of holidays, sick leave and so on. She proposes a basic set of conditions that should apply to all workers irrespective of whether they are full- or part-time. Employers are also avoiding their responsibilities to their workers by using them as sub-contractors or taking them from labour hire companies. This requires a broader definition of employment. Government, business managers, industry associations and unions need to look afresh at the way we now work rather than maintain an out-dated focus on ‘male full-time employment’.

In Chapter 5 (‘After the boom: where will growth come from?’, Roy Green) and Chapter 7 (‘Life after luck: building a more resilient economy’, Ian McAuley) the proposals are about productivity and economic restructuring. Green argues for new and smarter management and quotes evidence that changes in management have a proportionally greater impact on productivity than changes in labour and capital. The changes we need include not just technical but organisational innovation.

McAuley says our reliance, historically, on resources like gold, iron ore and coal has created a mentality not conducive to a modern economy.

Both agree we need to add value to our products and that simply reducing costs is no longer an answer. McAuley puts it like this:

Cost-based competition will always be a struggle. Instead focus on providing so much customer value through products or services that they can command premium prices.

As expected on such an issue, Chapter 8, ‘Climate change: reconnecting politics with reality’, John Wiseman goes furthest regarding the changes required to meet the challenges. Issues of productivity, economic restructuring, and creating an equitable society also link with these changes. A key difference in this argument is that the time has passed for incremental change. It is now necessary to adopt something like a ‘war footing’ to achieve a rapid transition to a new carbon-free economy.

In the book, ‘Chipping in: paying for a good society’ is rightly the first chapter, but I also link it to the big picture of the final chapter because it addresses how the alternative policies can be funded by government. Four authors were involved in this chapter (so I won’t list them all). I liked their reference to the ‘reality triangle’ in the business world: ‘fast, ‘good’ and ‘cheap’. The concept is that a product or service can achieve any two of these but never successfully all three. They suggest a similar triangle for governments: ‘low taxes’, ‘balanced budgets’ and ‘high quality public services’. In the electoral chase to lower taxes, we have been running into problems with the other two.

They propose changes to increase revenue and suggest the electorate may accept increased taxes if these quickly result in improved services, or if it can at least be shown that the increased revenue is committed to the services. That is consistent with the general support for tax levies identified for specific purposes, such as the ‘gun buy-back’, the ‘flood levy’ and the increase to the Medicare levy to help fund the NDIS.

The last chapter (Chapter 10, ‘The vision thing: we need a national plan’) by Geoff Gallop, provides a means to draw together the previous proposals. The author discusses a national plan and points to some successful approaches through the COAG Reform Agenda and the earlier introduction of the National Competition Policy.

It focuses too much on the practical aspects (as important as they are) and ignores key elements of a ‘vision’. In my experience, the vision is vital in showing how the underlying strategies fit into the whole: for example, how the education strategy ties into economic and social inclusivity strategies; why ‘a’ must precede ‘b’, thereby allowing people to understand why there is increased funding for one and not the other.

It should be obvious that one can’t provide refrigeration and computers to a community that doesn’t have a reliable electrical supply but that is a situation I encountered in my working life. It arises if a strategy is not linked effectively to an overall vision or, sometimes, an attitude that the important precursors are too expensive so let’s move straight to the cheaper parts. They are issues that can be overcome in the logic of the vision. Politicians should play a key part in explaining that logic – but first they have to find a vision! Starting with the policies in this book would help them.

In this short review I cannot do justice to the policies, evidence and background presented. For example, I found the first chapter on tax reform also effective as an economics primer. There is much to be found here, including the many sources listed at the end of each chapter.

This collection of articles, although only ten in number, is vital in developing an overall progressive vision for the future of Australia, one building on our luck not relying on it, and again making Australia an egalitarian society. I strongly recommend it for your Christmas list.

Pushing our Luck: Ideas for Australian Progress edited by Miriam Lyons with Adrian March and Ashley Hogan, published 2013 by the Centre for Policy Development, Haymarket NSW

If you want more information, or a copy of the book go to the Centre for Policy Development.